A nuclear-waste documentary speaks to the unknowable future.

'Into Eternity' Ponders a Present-Day Paradox

Susan Gerhard May 27, 2011

We continue to be surprised by nuclear “accidents,” each a new, purportedly unprecedented type of disaster that the experts assure us can and will be prevented next time. It’s curious: Build a system with potential for danger so great the consequences are unimaginable—widespread disease, death, permanent alterations to the genetic code, gigantic swaths of Earth left uninhabitable for, say, 100,000 years—then rely on our lack of imagination to protect us from worrying about it. Because, to actually deal with the reality at hand, one would have to be considered mad.

It is a cast of scientists and engineers who seem at first slightly Strangelovian that Danish conceptual artist-filmmaker Michael Madsen turns his lens toward in the operatic 2009 documentary Into Eternity, currently at the Roxie Cinema. They are engaged in a project of such absurd ambition that their cold realism seems of that “evil-insane” stripe, building an underground storage unit that will take at least a century to create and is required to last for 100 centuries, until such time as the nuclear waste becomes “safe” again. The facility is a co-production of Finland and Sweden, named “Onkalo,” which is the Finnish word for “hiding place.” If we are to store the projected waste in this manner world-wide, 100 such facilities would have to be built in other shatter-proof locations.

How far off is that 100-century mark? Consider, as the filmmakers do, that the pyramids are 6,000 years old and the oldest cave paintings estimated at 30,000. Can life be expected to understand not to investigate, open or disturb this quarry for 100,000 years? How can its danger be communicated, its contents protected from curiosity, collapse, change of creatures and conditions we have no real idea about now? And yet, how does the folly of such an enterprise compare with our current plan of storing nuclear waste in above-ground water pools that are, even as we speak, being shaken and emptied from Fukushima into the deep blue sea we all share?

Madsen brings a full package of artists’ tools to the question: an eery score of classical, operatic notes that speak to/of centuries-old human paradoxes, a slow-motion camera that pauses to consider the vastness of the earth being dug into, a conceptual lensing of interviews that pays attention to the human gestures and tics that say far more than words about the nature of the plan. As they discuss the project, the scientists themselves change shape on screen, from enemies of man to its saviors, acting with strange affectless resolve to save us from the disaster we don’t realize we’re living.

Its dark sets and philosophical intensity, as well as its mournful-yet-respectfully antic tone most recalls John Adams and Peter Sellars opera about the Robert Oppenheimer and the Trinity/nuclear bomb test at Los Alamos, Doctor Atomic.

But it is, at the moment, the perfect bookend to Werner Herzog’s equally philosophical if less environmentally urgent Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is still playing in amazing 3-D. Both Herzog’s Cave and Madsen’s Eternity approach time and space with care: The under-explored world beneath the Earth’s surface retains its mystery, the long expanses of time considered are illustrated musically. Herzog, in a gesture that also points to the unknowable future, closes his film with a visit to radiated waters in France, where a population of albino alligators swim in dangerous, strangely tropical ponds. Herzog takes the opportunity to project what future populations, mutated reptilian swimmers or some other version of “us,” will think of the cave art and our times, without worry for what kinds of creatures the future will bring. It’s a celebration of survival and change in a world that will continue evolving, with or without us.

Madsen’s trip to the underworld, on the other hand, ponders loss for that world without us and worry over what evolution will bring, as scientists valiantly, vainly attempt to control and protect persons, places and things from the genie that's already left the bottle.