Sunday, January 22, 2012

2012 German Gems

2012 marked the end for Ingrid Eggers' German Gems Film Festival. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Eggers said "I gave it long, deep thought...The Bay Guardian gave me a lifetime achievement award. Once you get that, it's time to quit." Apparently, whatever animus existed between Eggers and the managers of her former festival, Berlin and Beyond, has dissipated to the point that she can claim, B&B is "is back on track."

I thank and congratulate Ms. Eggers for her many, fine years of programming excellent German language cinema in San Francisco. I'll miss her programming.

Unfortunately, the 2012 German Gems ran up against a Henri-Georges Clouzot series at the PFA. I was only able to see one film at the day long event at the Castro Theater.

Under Control; documentary; directed by Volker Sattel; German with subtitles; (2011)

The Castro runs previews before some its screenings. In December, I saw a funky, 1970s looking festival trailer for the 2012 German Gems. I'm still not sure what it was all about but if I had to guess, I think it was referencing Under Control which was filmed at various operating and abandoned nuclear power plants in Germany. I think the outfits in the trailer where riffing on the hazmat/radiation protection suits worn by workers at nuclear power plants.

Let me start by stating (or admitting given your viewpoint) that I am an electrical engineer. More accurately I have degrees in electrical engineering; I don't do engineering work anymore. My specialty was power engineering. Although I didn't specialize in nuclear power, my understanding of how a nuclear power plant works is better than the layman or man-on-the-street. With that out of the way, I was fascinated by the imagery in Under Control. Shot on 35 mm and at times, looking like an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey , the film beautifully captured the design of nuclear power plants. The effect was similar to what I read about Manufactured Landscapes which I haven't seen.

As the camera panned across control panels, fuel rod storage pools, the interior of containment buildings, etc., I recalled why I became an engineer. I think it is beautiful to see scale models and pipes and cable trays forming geometric patterns. However, I wondered how many in the audience understood what they were looking at. The dialog was minimal at times.

More problematic was the lack of a narrative. The film seemed to take place at several power plants. Some were still in operation, others were shuttered, still another was converted into an amusement park. I wasn't sure which power plant I was looking at. At one point, it seems like there is an emergency like a stuck valve which would lead to a containment breach or nuclear meltdown. The plant is evacuated. I think that would have made the news but I don't recall anything like that. Was it an exercise? Was it staged for the film? I don't know, it was never mentioned again. The fact that they were using 1960s & 70s looking switches and panels (like the original Star Trek) made me scratch my head. Why hadn't they upgraded that equipment and controls?

In essence, the filmmakers go to nuclear power plants and beautifully film the routine processes and tasks the employees must do as well as the equipment and facilities. Then it hops around to employees of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the crumbling ruins of an abandoned plant(s), etc. The overarching theme seems to be that we (or at least Germany) built these plants to control nature - harnessing the energy of the atom for our increasingly energy-intensive lifestyle. Now, 40 or 50 years later, the people are under control of the nuclear plants - operational safeguards and procedures dealing with the nuclear waste control the lives of those who work at or live near these power plants. I found the premise to dubious. Let's not forget the status quo when these plants were built. In Germany, they were burning coal to generate electricity. Who knows how much air pollution was avoided due to these nuclear power plants? Would they be any less "under control" if there was coal plant spewing NOX and SOX emissions and asthma rates were doubled? Society is all about controls which are more restrictive than anything shown in Under Control.

Avoiding a debate on nuclear power, the film seems to wants decry of the constraints imposed by generating nuclear power. The land use, the storage issues, etc. I just didn't find the arguments compelling. Instead, I found the images compelling.

If anything, I was saddened by the demise of nuclear power in Germany. The images in Under Control hearkened back to the days when society confidently "conquered" the environment. Engineers used to design and build big, ambitious projects like dams to tame rivers, long tunnels to defeat mountains, bridges to span the impassable and nuclear power plants to power a nation. Now, lawyers and environmentalists subvert those ambitions. Is it better for society? Perhaps; solar or wind generation brings a host of problems that most people don't consider. Most of these issues are because we can't "control" the output but for me, it's sad too. The enlightened societies won't allow a nuclear power plant to be built or in Germany, even remain in operation because the risk are too high. Society wants renewable power on demand without any risks and at low costs. It makes me recall why I stopped being an engineer...

As you can see, my take Under Control is intensely personal and unique. I liked the film despite its flaws but I can't really recommend it...except to some of my classmates from engineering school.

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