'Irradiated' ('Irradiés'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Berlin Film Festival
An onslaught of wartime atrocities that's not always easy to watch.

Oscar-nominated Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s latest documentary uses archive footage to depict the devastation of 20th century wars.

Filmmaker Rithy Panh’s numerous documentaries, and handful of fiction features, have often been built around the depiction of his native Cambodia under the deadly reign of the Khmer Rouge, during which the director lost his parents and several other members of his family. In movies like S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012) and the Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture (2013), Panh revisited the genocide committed by Pol Pot’s regime in the late-1970s via interviews, re-enactments and even claymation to compensate for the fact that images from the epoch tend to be few and far between. More often than not, the pictures are missing.

In his latest documentary, Irradiated (Irradiés), which premiered in Berlin’s main competition, the director has taken the opposite approach, densely packing his movie with war footage — specifically, of bombings, torture and massacres — from start to finish, while using a three-screen projection technique to multiply the effects. (The split screen recalls the Polyvision method used by Abel Gance in his 1927 epic Napoleon, with the three screens sometimes morphing into one widescreen image.)

The result can be both harrowing and rather numbing, subjecting the viewer to an onslaught of imagery that’s all the more hard to watch because it’s real. Accompanying the montage is a voiceover oscillating between the poetic and the pretentious (e.g., “war plays out against a single backdrop that is the stuff of dreams”), intercut with scenes of performers in Kabuki-style makeup gesticulating within a burnt-out décor. While the film can get under your skin at times, recalling major 20th century traumas and the scars they've left behind, it seems better fit for museums than for movie screens.

Without titles explaining what we’re watching, and with Panh’s editing jumping between various conflicts and countries, often match-cutting on the action — such as showing bombs falling out of planes in Germany, then in Vietnam — what most comes to mind here is Jean-Luc Godard’s montage-based films like the Histoire(s) du cinéma series or the more recent The Image Book, from 2018. Indeed, the voiceover by French actor André Wilms, from a text by Panh, Agnès Sénémaud and Christophe Bataille (who also wrote the commentary for The Missing Picture), has a very Godard-esque quality to it, reflecting on what we’re seeing in a distant, abstract manner (another example: “What’s more exciting than destruction?”) that makes Irradiated more of a meditation on destruction and violence than any sort of history lesson.

And yet, history is constantly present in the assembly of archive footage, a good amount of it focusing on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which serve as a centerpiece to Panh’s discourse. But the film also presents images from the trenches of World War I, the killing fields of Cambodia and many sequences shot in concentration camps during World War II, including mass graves, emaciated corpses and human bodies on which the Nazis conducted scientific experiments. There's so much suffering that you want to look away at times, which seems to be Panh’s point: Everything we’re watching not only happened, but happened because of people like us. Ignoring that fact means turning away from the dark reality of our own making.

At the same time, Irradiated never tries to deeply analyze what we’re seeing, while inexplicably limiting itself to certain periods of history and ignoring more recent atrocities committed, say, in Sarajevo or Syria. The lack of clarity can be frustrating, as can a voiceover that’s often as unbearable as the images themselves, not to mention the avant-garde performance scenes that feel eye-rollingly obvious. None of it seems as necessary or vital as the documentary record Pahn is presenting.

While the footage is only credited at the very end, film buffs will recognize sequences from Alain Resnais’ films Night and Fog and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, as well as shots from A-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll and other locations. The final reel features an extended scene of the late Marceline Loridan-Ivens in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer, where she walks through the streets of Paris telling her tale as a Holocaust survivor. Alongside images of flowers and other shots of life renewing itself, the closing is meant to offer a glimmer of hope, showing how humans manage to march on despite all the horrors they have been through.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Catherine Dussart Productions (CDP)
Cast: Bion, André Wilms, Rebecca Marder
Director: Rithy Panh
Screenwriters: Rithy Panh, Agnès Sénémaud, Christophe Bataille
Producer: Catherine Dussart
Director of photography: Prum Mesa
Editor: Rithy Panh
Composer: Mark Marder

Sales: Playtime

In French, 88 minutes