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Director Volker Sattel makes a study of nuclear energy’s aura in Germany by segmenting the film into tours of several nuclear institutions, inside and out. Immediately striking is the grandness of scale captured, the enormous physical tribute made to something totally invisible. Though there are many sites visited, there are four that can be said to thematically describe the entirety of the film.
The employees of the first so called “very modernized” plant give a tour of a mock control room during a simulation of a failure. The room is an exact replica of the plant’s functioning control center, the simulation running is similar to the failure that caused the meltdown at 3-mile island (the employees in training are not successful in preventing a hypothetical disaster). Particularly alarming in the scenario is how immaterial and disconnected the employees are from the problem. Their senses are reduced to a series of dials; their ability to interact, a series of knobs. At the same time, the control room looks just like those from War Games (1983) and The China Syndrome (1979). The technology appears to be very dated, heightening the sense that the situation is out of anyone’s hands. Having been shot on analogue film, Unter Kontrolle overlays grain, dust and scratches (a limitation of last decades’ non-digital cameras) over an image of the bland control rooms that appear to be relics of the past. The huge size of the plant surveyed may have, at first, seemed to physically overshadow the unseen nuclear forces within, but now that the workers and their tools appear helpless, the scale of the plant seems like a comically futile physical compensation for a great intangible threat.
In the past, it has been customary to explain the unexplainable by accrediting the supernatural and spiritual realms. As depicted in Unter Kontrolle, the nuclear institutions start to remind the viewer of religious institutions. For me, this idea became evident during a scene where the camera shoots an eagle’s eye view over the pool of nuclear cooling liquid. The facility is perfectly still, except for one worker taking off his gloves. The facility is creepily peaceful; the only sound is the echoing of the latex snaps of the gloves through the vast cavities of the building, all while the camera centers on the nexus of energy in the facility: the submerged nuclear rods. This peaceful stillness in the face of unimaginable great power cannot help but bring up connotations of the house of God. To name nuclear power plants “The Church of Atom” does not seem to be a stretch within the context of the documentary. Though it has a certain dystopian ring to it, the employees are servants to the invisible force: they respect its power, learn how to worship it, but ultimately all the phenomena surrounding nuclear power are not scientifically known, and the power may be unleashed in ways they cannot anticipate.
In two other locations, direct allusions of dystopia are made by reference to established films in the genre. A waste management plant is shown where workers manipulate mechanical arms that are connected to robotic arms within a sealed containment. This is an exact scene out of Lucas’s THX-1138. Both in the documentary and the 1971 film workers manipulate radioactive fuel sources, the only (possible) difference being that in THX-1138 the fuel powers the workers’ automaton overlords. The other reference is to (one of my favorite films) Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil. This time, Sattel is documenting a nuclear power-plant that has been shut down and repurposed to be a children’s amusement park. Within a giant cooling duct, that like in Brazil, has been painted baby-blue and adorned with clouds, children whirl around on a fun ride screaming for joy. Such a display of happiness can only be horrific in the façade of a deteriorated nuclear plant.
Though by all means neutral in content, the presentation of the film guides the viewer towards a distaste of nuclear power. Although I would initially have been confused and startled to learn that Germany is getting rid of all their nuclear power sources within the next 10 years, after the strong impression of the film, this seems like a natural inclination.