Still in Control – or Under Control?

Film still from Volker Sattel’s Under Control, courtesy credo film

Three years ago – before the ongoing Fukushima meltdown crisis following March’s Japanese earthquake and the subsequent apocalyptic tsunami –, Volker Sattel began work on Unter Kontrolle (Under Control) unaware of its burning topicality in Germany’s particularly controversial debate about nuclear power. The documentary premiered in the Forum at the 2011 Berlinale and focuses on the ›here and now‹ of the almost publicly suppressed artefacts of a »hi-tech« era which was so characteristic for the booming post-war decades in the developed countries of the Western hemisphere. It gives a unique insight into the strange world of the nuclear industry which will now be off-limits to the public eye for many years – because of Fukushima.

Clearly timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster – still by far the worst nuclear power plant accident in history –, Volker Sattel’s »archaeology of the atomic age« skillfully captures the daily working routines in these cathedrals populated by a predominantly male order in never-before-seen pictures which meticulously subvert the original statements of this nuclear high priest caste. They seem to have fallen out of time as their monstrous mega-complexes are caught in a 1970s time loop.

The archaeological approach is evident when Sattel enters the pharaonic reactor core of Austria’s Zwentendorf nuclear power plant which never came online because of a referendum. Today, the partly dismantled facility serves as a training centre for engineers and staff of Germany’s nuclear power plant providers. Completely absurd and undermining the bright prospects for a future plutonium age are those scenes in the abandoned fast breeder reactor in Kalkar which has been turned into the »Kern-Wasser Wunderland« fairground attraction with its spectacular, but outlandish carousel inside the gigantic ventilation stack chimney.

This unforgettable imagery and the almost congenial atmospheric soundtrack of this strange world also show that Sattel has a clear eye for the pop-cultural iconography of science-fiction movie heritage – whether it is the deserted Kubrick-style mock-up control centres of the simulation centre in Essen, the post-doomsday images of demolished Chernobyl-type power plants in Eastern Germany, or – with a subtle sense of humour – the establishing dolly shot of a single nuclear fuel rod exhibit citing the famous opening in George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) when the literally never-ending Imperial Star Destroyer of Darth Vader come onto the scene.

However, the enigmatic nuclear radiation isn’t an invisible »Phantom Menace«: abstract traces of radiation are shot in an alcohol-saturated »fog chamber«, the beauty of the supernatural blue Cherenkov radiation and, finally, the flickering radiation striking the spectator. The end titles are underlain with film footage exposed in the radioactive core of a research facility. A unique, but eerie moment in film history when the film stock is seemingly converting itself into an intimidating source of hazard. Are we still in control – or under control?

This review has been published in the recent print issue #100 of KINO – German Film & International Reports.

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