Massimo Iannetta and Nina Toussaint's unrelentingly bleak documentary The Decomposition Of The Soul eerily echoes the form and content of the disturbing 2003 documentary S-21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, right down to titles that sound like parodies of arthouse miserablism. Both films examine the harrowing ordeals suffered by victims of totalitarian police states, as survivors travel back to the scene of their imprisonment, cameras in tow, to discuss what they've been through and how it's scarred them for life.


While S-21 sifted through the wreckage of Cambodia's infamous Khmer Rouge regime, Decomposition takes an equally unflinching look at a prison run by the East German secret police. The film centers on a pair of weary survivors, a man and a woman who recount their torment at the hands of interrogators who waged a persistent campaign of dehumanization and psychological warfare. Unlike the Khmer Rouge, the East Germans trafficked in psychological rather than physical abuse, but both forms leave deep, permanent damage.

Decomposition so thoroughly immerses itself in the cold, gray world of Kafka-esque indefinite imprisonment that a shot of the open sky becomes incredibly bracing. Iannetta and Toussaint seem to want to remove any protective distance between the audience and their subject, which makes the film an intentional ordeal. Decomposition bears powerful, uncompromising witness to man's inhumanity to man, which is one of the most important things any documentary can do, though, it's also one of the most grueling. In a world where Guantanamo Bay and Iraqi prison abuses have sullied our country's reputation for transparency and justice in its legal system, Decomposition resonates with unsettling timeliness and political relevance.