“We all make mistakes,” intones a sober nuclear technician in Volker Sattel’s documentary Under Control. “Ten an hour on average.” He leads us through a room of incomprehensible equipment pocked with coruscating buttons that serve as a textbook of the semiotics of panic: curious yellows, uncompromising reds, reassuring greens and blues. These apparati, he explains, bridge perpetual margins of human error that could not only bring about catastrophe in the power plant, but another syndrome at which Germans stereotypically scowl: inefficiency. The expressionless serenity of these machines of loving grace are anxiety-provoking because we’ve been trained to fear computer malfunctions more than user mistakes—never mind the truism that technological shortcomings are informed by those of their inventor/programmer—and a few scenes later, Sattel provides a nail-biting if under-explicated example of the former. Pressurized cylinders bubble over with water as anonymous men in uniforms calmly if hurriedly address the source of stress, explaining with knowledgeable shrugs that a similar disturbance led to the quasi-catastrophe of Three Mile Island.
These likely humdrum happenings are flooded with connotative doom, partially because of recent memories of Fukushima, which spookily dovetailed with the film’s premiere, and the manner in which the movie’s testimonies seem designed to address a checklist of topical what-ifs. (In another scene, a worker explains the safeguards in place that would be deployed if hijacked airplanes were discovered on a collision course toward the reactor towers of his plant.) Germany’s hot-off-the-presses decision to phase out its nuclear facilities over the next few decades, however, offers the footage an elegiac elegance. And in the first two acts of Under Control, Sattel takes us on a blank-eyed tour of the country’s biggest plants (plus a few from Austria), exposing both the tenuous balance of precision and innovation that has provided 20th-century Western society with its most controversial power source, and the manner in which the technology’s extant dangers have dissolved into technical monotony.
The film’s mechanical dreaminess recalls the work of unsubtle, sci-fi auteurs (the crest of Kubrick’s hard-on for the geometrically spacey shows in the nearly erotic pans over the massive, concentric design of the various towers and their entrails), but its planate aesthetic and no-nonsense monologue have more in common with poetic if unemotional renderings of hot-button issues (cf. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). An even more appropriate analogue might be Talking Heads’ aggressively passive “Don’t Worry About the Government”; the song is vague enough to be read as either a dismissal of municipal paranoia or a wink at the cult of bureaucracy. Similarly, Sattel doesn’t bother attempting to show both sides of the nuclear debate; he instead shows a single, albeit un-politicized and highly vague, one. And, to be sure, there’s no shortage of entrancing images through the film’s loping running time to abet this. We see a row of still, studious hands whose unseen owners exchange jargon; a hypnotically steady descent in a tight, grimy elevator; and, perhaps most memorably, a group of workers laundering yellow jumpsuits, the anti-contamination properties of which are piquantly described.
In the third act, Sattel’s focus shifts more forcefully to the national death of nuclear power, and its effects on the model villages and cultures that have sprouted about the energy’s periphery. There are, still, images here that seem culled from some obsolete collective nervousness; the camera pans mournfully, for example, over one extinct tower that now houses a suspended carnival ride. But the transition from exploring the problematic, and rather dinosaur-like, nuclear motif (none of the big-buttoned computers seem to have been updated since the ‘70s) to examining the dismantling of that motif’s physical counterparts makes for a gawkily concrete ending. Sattel lingers a few seconds too long on the deposits of homeless waste that rest in his country’s natural caverns, and the stagey ending—where frantic alarms sound in a vacant plant—feels like the contrivance of a completely different documentary. The point made by these missteps, however, is a powerful one: What we imagine as being under our control is very often only under our rug.