Michael Madsen

Into Eternity

In winter of 2007, the German nuclear power lobby tried to affix a green image onto nuclear energy. Shortly after publication of the alarming IPCC report, they termed nuclear power plants “Germany’s unpopular climate protectors.” To be sure, nuclear power is not derived from fossil energies, but does cause CO2 emissions through uranium enrichment plants and nuclear-waste transportation. Above all, nuclear waste must be securely stored for 100,000 years due to its potentially lethal radioactive radiation. But where? How are we to relate to such an immense period of time? Is anyone at all in a position to take on the responsibility for this length of time?

Trailer Into Eternity © Magic Hour Films

A case in point: 450 tonnes of nuclear waste are produced annually in Germany, and the nuclear power lobby was very successful in effectively downplaying the consequences. But now Michael Madsen casts light on this blind spot in his documentary, Into Eternity. A Film for the Future. Madsen shows the Finnish tunnel Onkalo, in which 5,500 tonnes of Finnish uranium are to be permanently sealed off as of 2100. But the world’s first permanent disposal site is still under construction. Onkalo means “little cave” – one could not have thought up a more harmless-sounding name than this for such a place.

© Magic Hour Films Madsen, who repeatedly appears before the camera, attempts to contextualise the dimensions and expense of this concrete construction project. Now, one sees him in various dark sections of the tunnel, and then again in discussion with responsible Finnish or Swedish researchers, radiologists or Onkalo employees. The interviewees’ signatures are faded into their names – are their signatures being used to hold them to their accountability?

Madsen’s central theme is the philosophical question of how to convey to future generations the 100,000-year-long danger posed by nuclear waste. Applying various radiuses, he and his thoughtful discussion partners circle in on the impossibility of finding an answer. All they can do is speculate. According to law, the Finnish state is the responsible party.

In a video work by the Romanian artist Andrej Ujica, Paul Virilio remarks that Chernobyl was an accident of time because the radionuclides – substances which arise through radioactive decay – will last for generations, and an accident of consciousness because it exceeds our powers of imagination. In Into Enternity, the director of the Swedish research institute for nuclear-waste disposal tells a joke that has been on his mind from the beginning of the project: what would have happened if, at the start of construction, they had found a copper canister containing radioactive waste? Uncertainty and doubt can be detected in most of the conversations, and then relief – after all, uranium is a finite resource, just like crude oil.

© Magic Hour Films A similar quality of ambivalence between reassuring oneself, confidence and doubt runs through the entire 75 minutes of the film. Whether a radiologist with her pointed nose and sternly combed-back hair posing in front of a monstrous apparatus, or the demolition expert philosophising about his job underground: even the responsible managers and scientists sitting behind their desks are unconvincing in their pronouncements. Sometimes Madsen helps the scepticism along technically. For instance, he has the employees of the nuclear power plant Olkiluoto-3, only one kilometre away from Onkalo, floating in slow motion between the gigantic plants. Attracted by the technoid scientific scenario, Madsen aestheticises the already aesthetic forms and surfaces, and makes use of Kraftwerk’s cold zeitgeist hymn, Radioactivity, to comment on the images. Elsewhere, he uses emotional music by Philip Glass to convey his position as concerned objector. Madsen visits one department after another. This persistence serves to concoct a backdrop of baleful imagery. Cool, uninvolved close-ups and lurching slow-motion shots eat away at the authority of the machines. The place is a ticking time bomb.

© Magic Hour Films Madsen’s investigation of the question of how to convey the depot’s dangers to our descendants is almost too thorough. His dialogue partners grope about in speculation, downplay the burden of responsibility, or take refuge in the universal understandability of pictogrammes. Dangers could arise from rising sea levels or from groundwater. Rock offers the most stable conditions, but these are relative when considered in terms of 100,000 years. The camera never tires of probing the darkness of the tunnel again and again, creating a lasting uneasiness in the viewer.

The state of the pilot final storage facility ASSE in Lower Saxony is also alarming, as is the over 30-year-old decision to construct a permanent disposal site in Gorleben. The unanswered questions addressed by Madsen in his film are not only directed at Finland.
Vera Tollmann
works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2010


    © Magic Hour Films
    Michael Madsen (*1971) is a film director and concept artist. He studied dramaturgy and art history at the Universities of Aarhus and Copenhagen. Madsen directed numerous documentary films, among them Celestial Night – A Film on Visibility (2003), and the award-winning To Damascus – A Film on Interpretation (2005). He is a co-founder of the Galleri Tusk, a mobile gallery, as well as initiator, artistic director and a participating artist of the Lyd/Galeri (1996–2001), a large-scale subterranean audio gallery under the Copenhagen City Hall Square. Madsen is co-editor of van Gogh, a Danish magazine for audio art, and a member of the artists’ group of the same name, with whom he realised vanGogh#7 (2007) for the art and music festival Spor, among other things. Michael Madsen lives in Copenhagen and Berlin.