“Stealing the Fire” travels over four continents and six decades to chronicle an incredible chain of events leading from the laboratories of Nazi Germany to an Iraqi chicken farm full of state-of-the-art nuclear technology. “Fire” demonstrates the mind-boggling ease with which nuclear secrets are brokered — not simply by seedy little men in trench coats, but with the collaboration of large corporations, the full knowledge of governments and the seeming indifference of the press. Docu’s focus sometimes wavers, but its stylistic unevenness is trumped by its topicality. With India and Pakistan engaging in doomsday face-offs and terrorists wreaking unprecedented mayhem worldwide, filmmakers’ extraordinarily painstaking five-year investigation into a clandestine network of unchecked nuclear proliferation could not be more relevant. A limited theatrical run seems likely, with TV exposure a virtual certainty.
Documentarians John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler take as their starting point a January 1996 New York Times article that, following trails uncovered by U.N. inspectors in Iraq, fingered German technician Karl-Heinz Schaab as the man who sold key atomic technology to Sadam Hussein. Benefiting greatly from information gathered by German and Brazilian investigative reporters, who figure prominently as talking heads throughout the film, docu follows Schaab to Brazil where he has temporarily fled to escape prosecution and where he has dabbled in murky nuke-dealings in the past.
Then it’s back to Germany as Schaab, seemingly confident that he now is safe, voluntarily returns home to face trial, his previous threats to implicate higher-ups by “naming names” apparently having borne fruit.
Film at this point takes an abrupt detour to explore the history of the centrifuge, the device found in Iraq that makes it possible for nations or even small terrorist groups to manufacture fissionable material and thus atomic bombs in large quantities, cheaply and virtually undetected. The history of the centrifuge is inseparable from the story of Nazi scientists after WWII, and Friedman and Nadler follow the magic cylinder via archival footage as it journeyed to the Soviet Union via German prisoners of war, made a brief two-year stopover in the U.S. and finally wound up as the property of Degussa, a German company that supplied the concentration camps with Zyklon-B and processed precious metals from the teeth and belongings of camp inmates.
Friedman, producer of “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,” is understandably fascinated by the continued corporate immunity of Degussa which, despite its alleged involvement in Iraq, was never publicly named or indicted. But if the German emphasis on “export uber alles,” as one featured journalist puts it, places that nation at the forefront of nuclear trafficking, Germany is by no means alone in putting balance of trade ahead of concern about what’s being traded.
In their persistent emphasis on the Degussa/German connection, the filmmakers appear caught up in historical ironies, which although fascinating, tend to diffuse the scope of the immediate inquiry. All strands come together in docu’s final chapters, however, with the astounding, little reported revelation that Schaab was ultimately convicted of treason only to be sentenced to five years probation and, essentially, let off scot-free.
Docu occasionally indulges in cheesy atmospheric “reconstructions” that seem totally redundant, given the sinister matter-of-factness or chuckling glee with which ex-Nazis, nuclear scientists or former Degussa employees breezily open up and calmly discuss free-trading in weapons of mass destruction. No one seems to suffer unduly from guilt, from Hussein’s son-in-law, responsible for the development of Iraq’s nuclear capability, to Schaab’s lawyer, specialist in the defense of arms dealers.
Technical credits are OK. The catchy score, by Hahn Rowe, is often called upon to provide a jaunty forward-moving counterpoint to the filmmakers’ somewhat diffident voice-over narration.