Directed by Volker Sattel
The German documentary Under Control depicts a world where every precaution requires a set of additional precautions. At the nuclear power plant in Grohnde, in Lower Saxony, a hard-hatted tour guide stops to point out the “safety smokescreen devices” positioned around the facility’s perimeter: were an airplane to zero in on the reactor, these machines would enshroud the surrounding environment completely in smoke. Citing a stat that human drivers make an average of 10 errors per hour, an official at a retro-futuristic training center shows off vast control rooms of consoles programmed to make their own decisions. In detailing the impossibly elaborate (but still not infallible) safety measures put in place in the shadow of Germany and Austria’s atomic cooling towers—and in its slow pans of the plants’ mechanical daily operations—Volker Sattel’s superlative film highlights the permanent lockdown at several nuclear colonies.
Widening its scope as it progresses, Under Control also handles longer-haul concerns: the contained disposal of tainted material (spent fuel rods, coolant water set in concrete) and the dismantling of plants that are no longer operational. The movie is all the more haunting for not pronouncing in stentorian tones, as did Michael Madsen in his recent Into Eternity, how inadequate and short-sighted the current methods of storing radioactive waste may well be. Alarm dawns gradually in Under Control’s later sections, coming as they do after a patient inventory of risk-management procedures: An unidentified official illuminates the ghost “fast breeder” facility at Kalkar by flashlight; rebar tendrils protrude, hauntingly, from the never-completed Stendal plant. Many years after their abandonment, these crumbling structures still blight the landscape. Since the film’s Berlinale premiere—and in the wake of Fukushima—Chancellor Merkel has put all the nuclear power plants profiled on an accelerated shutdown track. That might be the obvious political expedient, but, as Under Control so powerfully reminds, it will only create a host of other long-half-life problems.
December 2-11 at Anthology Film Archives