Into Eternity, Danish director Michael Madsen’s peek inside Onkalo, a nuclear waste storage facility currently under construction in Finland, was one of the most radical and stunning docs to screen at this past November’s IDFA because it doesn’t play like a documentary at all. Watching the film is akin to having a totally immersive, video game-like experience, a journey best described as Lord of the Rings meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. Time seems to stand still. That Into Eternity is indeed nonfiction—and would make for a great midnight scare flick—renders it all the more startling and disturbing.
Here are the facts: In this world in which our way of life depends on unlimited energy, we now have 200-to-300,000 tons of nuclear refuse that will remain a threat for at least 100,000 years—making radioactive waste the last remaining remnants of our civilization. Finland’s solution is to build an underground cavern the size of a large city (set for completion in the 22nd century), which after a hundred years will be filled and then sealed forever. But for the ingenious Madsen, environmental issues and even possible apocalypse are mere jumping off points into philosophical and theological inquiry. With the creepy and stunning footage of humans digging into eternity, he makes visual his probing of our very existence.
The invisible danger of nuclear waste becomes palpably apparent in Madsen’s filmmaking. (Another arresting doc I caught at IDFA, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Allentsteig, an exploration of the only unmarked spot on Austria’s map where a military base shares ground with a nature preserve, comes to mind for its similarly otherworldly vibe.) Scientists, academics, and construction workers—all eerily pale—serve as the film’s talking heads and are alternated with shots of Onkalo’s complex stainless steel machinery. Madsen’s creepy soundscape and synth-pop soundtrack, which often makes Into Eternity seem like a futuristic ‘80s video, accompany the deadly still imagery, while the bright whiteness of this sterilized burial chamber even conjures a heavenly feel. The classical music played over CGI animation from corporate promos adds yet another layer. And the halting voiceover, every bit as monotone as HAL’s, addresses future generations directly with such missives as “Our laws state we need to warn you about Onkalo,” bypassing us present-day viewers entirely. Taking a page straight from the Kubrick playbook, Madsen thrillingly builds tension through his juxtaposition of sounds and images both familiar and completely foreign, forcing our brains to struggle as we try to make sense of disparate elements.
Much like future generations might fight to decipher the proposed “markers” (in all major languages), like a monolith or rune stones, that might be placed aboveground as the land returns to nature, warning of the catastrophic menace lurking below. But would those markers be understood, or would they seem as mysterious and intimidating as the statues of Easter Island or the Pyramids are to us? And even if they are decoded, how to prevent the doomsday scenario that someday someone might ignore those warnings and dig in search of buried “treasure”—since waste could be both dangerous and valuable in the future? Would it be better simply to forget the site and leave no signs warning about Onkalo at all—especially since, as one scientist asserts, “the world above ground is unstable”? Even as a talking head suggests the use of landscaping (or even reproductions of Munch’s “The Cry”) to give the “feel” of danger, the fact remains that most markers today have been completely ignored by us curiosity seekers.
“Permanent is too strong a word,” an official allows toward the end of the doc in a discussion about the current unclear laws regarding cautioning citizens of the future. A scientist analogizes, how do you explain to people hunting mammals the idea of nuclear waste? Madsen himself suggests the use of legends passed on from generation to generation. “Don’t touch” and “You will be safe if you stay away” are what the talking heads forebodingly urge one by one as Madsen asks them to imagine addressing the residents of planet Earth millennia from now. And then suddenly that final image of Onkalo’s workers who look like they’re walking on the moon, disappearing into the black abyss of the unknown, appears to remind us that, as an earlier voiceover suggests, “We need to remember forever to forget.”