Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Requiem for a Reactor: Under Control

In the real world, you will find no Homer Simpsons in nuclear power plants. In point of fact, safety is of paramount concern to the very serious professionals who responsible for Germany’s atomic power. Documentarian Volker Sattel takes viewers on a tour of their computer regulated world in the surprisingly elegiac Under Control (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at Anthology Film Archives.

There are risks involved with any form of power generation, but the plants seen in the not so ironically titled Under Control have multiple levels of fail-safe automation built in. They are marvels of engineering one official boasts. They are also closing. Following Three Mile Island and then Chernobyl, the German public politically turned against nuclear energy. Having overestimated their future consumption, the German government started decommissioning nuclear plants decades ago. (Indeed, Control’s buried lede apparently establishes the thirst for energy in the industrialized West is quenchable after all.)

Despite some sequences involving the storage of nuclear waste, Control is really not a cautionary film, per se. Rather, it is a lament for those nuclear scientists and managers who looked like Robert McNamera and dedicated their lives to an atomic future cut short by politics, as well as the hulking behemoths they left behind.

Stylistically, Control is closely akin to Into Eternity, Michael Madsen’s exploration of a subterranean Finnish nuclear waste site, which also screens at Anthology next weekend in conjunction with Sattel’s documentary. Both films almost fetishize the shiny stainless steel and ominous concrete of the Nuclear Age’s science fiction-like structures. However, Madsen has a clearer agenda, whereas Sattel has a stronger eye for imagery. If you have a choice, opt for the latter.

As director, cinematographer, and co-editor, Sattel masterfully frames his visuals. However, the combined effect of the film’s glossy look and ambient soundtrack becomes lulling over time. More of a film for connoisseurs of experimental cinema than advocacy documentaries, Control is strangely balanced in its presentation nonetheless. Not for wide audiences, Control is respectfully recommended for self-selecting viewers who consider film a canvas rather than a soapbox. It screens at AFA for a week and change, beginning this Friday (12/2).