Film Review: Under Control

This documentary about nuclear power plants is as chilling as its title is ironic.

German filmmaker Volker Sattel surveys nuclear power plants in Under Control, at once offering a mixed message about the nuclear power industry and creating an odd kind of objet d’art. This is not a film designed to appeal to No Nukes sympathizers (if anything, they will be frustrated by the dearth of political statement), but it might attract the attention of art-house audiences, especially those with an affinity for Germanic Modernism.

Sattel’s interest extends from observing the precise day-to-day operations inside a few different plants throughout Germany and Austria to the superstructure of these outmoded, mammoth buildings, to their underground atomic-waste netherworlds. Along the way, we hear from some of the unnamed workers and officials (praising the benefits of nuclear power), and late in the film, we witness the government-decreed dismantling of defunct, non-operational units, but most of Under Control simply documents the expansive spatial dimensions of little-seen locations.

Sattel’s doc recalls Lessons of Darkness, the extraordinary 1992 film about the burning Kuwaiti oil fields resulting from the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a production that was also shot by a German-born filmmaker (Werner Herzog) and contained almost no dialogue. In addition, both seemingly different projects find beauty in tragedy, thanks to the keen aesthetic sensibilities of the directors. (In addition to directing, Sattel photographed his feature.)

Unfortunately, like the Herzog film, what makes Under Control so visually compelling is also what makes it problematical. Though the imagery is—ahem—powerful, without the proper historical context it will be hard for some viewers to appreciate how dangerous such plants have been through the years. Really, the only good thing to come out of the Fukushima disaster is that it could bring awareness to younger generations raised on the phony idea that nuclear power is safe. For those attuned to this relatively recent event in Japan, Under Control carries an extra layer of meaning; but unless they make it to the final moments, viewers will be on their own to divine the cautionary implications from this quietly dispassionate—though not ambivalent—film.

Still, there is no question that Sattel demonstrates tremendous talent at capturing a sense of place, and many of the widescreen shots convey an oppressive, menacing, even suspenseful atmosphere. Perhaps, in this way, Sattel’s Teutonic approach carries its own sort of politics of style and might be just scary enough to give audiences pause about a hotly (ahem again) debated environmental and existential issue.