German nonfiction filmmaker Volker Sattel confounds those on both sides of nuclear-power debate with his monumental film on the life and death of nuke plants, titled, with some tinge of perhaps unintended irony, “Under Control.” Pic preemed in the Berlin Forum and has gained currency and meaning since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, even though Sattel focuses primarily on plants in Germany and Austria. Following a late May local release, pic figures to pick up steam with further acquisitions and worldwide fest appearances.
With little commentary except for that of unidentified officials who describe their particular line of work, and never make general observations about the status of nuclear power in German-speaking countries, the film focuses its giant, widescreen 35mm eye on a chain of plants operated with the utmost of precision and care. An early sequence observes the handling of fuel rods in water, resembling a kind of high-tech rainforest. The sociopolitical background of the location and building of the plant in Grohnde is discussed, which includes a display of the nuclear process in which a guide says, “The technology here is enough to make any engineer’s mouth water.”
Recalling the filmmaking of Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Our Daily Bread”) in its precision and equal interest in humans and machines, Sattel displays extraordinary care toward his subject. Indeed the pic grasps with subtlety and patience the indefinable dance between highly skilled workers and the complex apparatus they have created and operate. The director never stoops to the kind of superficially stunning images that might easily have seduced a lesser filmmaker even as he delivers a work that is perhaps cinema’s most magnificent look at nuclear energy.
Yet just when the film appears to be a paean to the nuclear power industry, Sattel upsets things in the pic’s second half, in which the tone carefully shifts to eulogy. Once political darling and now pariah, nuclear plants are being phased out in Germany, and the camera trains on the demolition and dismantling of not only the plants but the small cities that have been built up around them.
The impact of watching something intended to last for millennia — and which looked so solid in the pic’s early sequences — suddenly reduced to rubble is chastening and eerie. Sattel has stated his intent is to give the viewer the feeling of looking back on the atomic age from the future and to view this fascinating and risky technology in a new way. He accomplishes this with majestic flourish.
The film also leaves in its wake a disturbing unanswered question, though never directly stated: What happens to the rest of these behemoths, and their waste? (Included in the pic is a look at the gigantic underground caves where the waste is stored.) In light of the Japanese catastrophe, questions swirl with considerable force, reframing the doc as much more than a German film about German matters.
Tech package is seriously under control, with added touches like MS-DOS style graphics for credits recalling a headier era for the nuclear industry.