Commander of the Khmer Rouge prison where at least 12,000 Cambodians were killed in the mid- to late ’70s, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, faces the camera in Rithy Panh’s powerful “Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell.” A sort of documentary sequel to Panh’s “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” this masterfully disturbing pic also can be considered a Cambodian “Fog of War,” with old Duch largely evading his responsibility for mass murder. Unavoidably talky but riveting nonetheless, “Duch,” like “S21,” will meet limited but highly appreciative audiences at festivals far and wide.
A thin, unsettlingly soft-spoken man with yellow-brown teeth and a faint smile, Duch two years ago became the first Khmer Rouge leader to face international charges. Introduced gently sipping tea from behind bars, he spends the bulk of the docu seated at a desk, examining old photos of death camp S21 — a “security center,” he obscenely calls it — along with detailed lists of prisoners whose executions he ordered with his signature. Duch also looks at “S21” (2003), wherein Panh brings survivors of torture together with their former “interrogators,” allowing the victims to do some interrogating of their own.
“Duch,” too, is an interrogation of the interrogator, even though the filmmaker’s questions remain unheard in the film. By participating in Panh’s project, whose purpose seems to extend well beyond the screen, the Chinese-Cambodian Duch is compelled to deliver a kind of ethical and philosophical autobiography to the audience “jury.” The criminal’s account, profoundly contradictory when not incoherent, includes his reference to the Khmer Rouge genocide — which claimed the lives of 1.8 million people — as inevitable, and to the victims as not human.
In terms that imply a convenient remove from heinous events, Duch describes himself as an instrument of the communist Angkar party, as a Marx- and Lenin-inspired scholar who merely taught theory to his army of killers. At one point offering a vague apology for his crimes, Duch says in the next breath, “I tend to regard myself as innocent.” Still, there’s a somewhat satisfying or at least poetically just sense in which Duch is being worn down psychologically by Panh’s penetrating gaze.
Albeit very simply composed, “Duch” is an unusually demanding film in that it asks the audience to behold the face of a monster for the better part of 100 minutes. Interpretations of whether the film allows some measure of catharsis will naturally vary, as Panh’s goal is to raise questions about the darkest side of human nature — questions that can’t be answered definitively.
Though “Duch” is largely a talking-head docu, its occasionally hypnotic montage includes black-and-white footage of Cambodian workers and contempo scenes of S21 survivor and painter Vann Nath at the canvas, as well as horrifying images of death. On balance, the tech package of Panh’s unflinching film is aptly vivid.