A book to be published next year will include accounts from East German documentary filmmakers who conducted some of the first interviews in Cambodia after Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
According to a draft of the book, author Peter Maguire said he stumbled across the documentarians in 1995 while working as a historian for Chronos, an East German-owned film company.
Maguire, who has also written a book on the Nuremberg trials and taught at Columbia University in New York, met Gerhard Scheumann, one of the filmmakers, who by 1979 had made five films in Hanoi about the Vietnamese. When Vietnam occupied Cambodia, he told Maguire he was in a good position to enter Cambodia, which for the previous four years had been virtually closed to the outside world.
In 1980, “Scheumann and his five-man crew drove in jeeps from Hanoi to Saigon to Phnom Penh,” Maguire’s draft reads.
“The entire countryside had been stripped….Phnom Penh was a ghost town,” Scheumann told Maguire.
The crew eventually made their way to S-21, better known as the Tuol Sleng torture center, where roughly 16,000 people were tortured and killed under the Khmer Rouge regime.
They “shot a few rolls” of S-21 guards, who Scheumann described as “simple people—illiterates,” according to the book draft.
To Scheumann, a communist East German, writes Maguire, “the Khmer Rouge was a noxious blend of bad French philosophy and extreme interpretation of the Chinese cultural revolution.” Scheumann told Maguire he found the regime “incomprehensible.”
Because the German Democratic Republic at the time was cooperating with the Soviet Union to reestablish ties with China, any criticism of China had to be omitted from the film, Scheumann told Maguire.
The crew’s first film, “Thinking about Kampuchea,” eventually was changed, Maguire reports. The crew also was present at the discovery of the Choeung Ek mass gravesite outside Phnom Penh where a skull-filled stupa now stands in memorial.
Scheumann’s crew later filmed the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, Ieng Sary, in Singapore. In all, they made three films, he told Maguire.