Into Eternity (International Film Circuit, NR)

Madsen has a flair for the dramatic as well as an outstanding visual sense and Into Eternity is nothing like a typical message documentary.



Most people are not good at thinking in large numbers, a fact exploited by politicians who like to quote the costs of programs they oppose in dollar figures (which make them seem large to the average citizen, unused to thinking in terms of millions, billions and trillions of dollars) while citing programs they favor in terms of percentages (which makes them seem small, because you can only have 100 percent of anything). Which sounds bigger, 1 percent of federal spending or 34.6 billion dollars? Of course they refer to the same quantity, but I’m willing to bet that the dollar figure seems a lot larger to most people.

The problem is even more severe when dealing with questions of historical time because while most of us can imagine how much money $100,000 is, we have a much harder time understanding how long 100,000 years is. And yet that’s how long the nuclear waste repository now being built at Onkalo, Finland is intended to last.

Think about something that happened a really long time ago: construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza, for instance. That took place during the fourth dynasty, about 4500 years ago. The Onkalo repository is intended to last 22 times as long. How about the cave paintings recently explored in Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams? They were created 30,000 to 32,000 years ago; the Onkalo repository is meant to last over three times as long. And 100,000 years is not a number picked out of the air—it’s a scientific estimate of how long nuclear waste needs to be stored safely in order that it not imperil human life or the natural environment. Of course 100,000 years from now who knows what kind of civilization will inhabit the earth or what they will make of this deadly gift we have bestowed on them?

This is the problem explored in Into Eternity, which is among other things the most beautiful documentary I’ve ever seen. Director Michael Madsen (no relation to the actor of the same name) seems to have art-directed every scene and draws on many techniques of narrative filmmaking to create a strangely beautiful alternative reality on the screen. At the same time he never loses sight of what he is trying to tell us, which can be summarized in the following chain of logic:

1. The modern world depends on a ready supply of energy, and demands will only increase in the future as standards of living improve in developing countries.

2. One means for producing this energy is nuclear power plants (they already produce about 6 percent of the world’s energy and 13-14 percent of the world’s electricity).

3. As a byproduct of the operation of nuclear power plants, 200,000-300,000 tons of nuclear waste have already been created and there will be more in the future if we continue to use nuclear power.

4. We don’t know how to make this waste harmless, nor do we have any effective way to get rid of it, so we have to find a safe way to store it.

5. Some of the radioactive elements in this nuclear waste will be dangerous for tens of thousands of years (or even longer), so we need to find a way to store this waste for a period of time orders of magnitude larger than we are used to thinking about.

6. We can’t guarantee the stability of a geographic location for 100 years, let alone 100,000, and in the last century we’ve had two world wars and countless minor wars, any of which could imperil the security of a nuclear storage site.

And yet the world is not about to give up nuclear power (and even if we did, we’d still have to deal with the nuclear waste already created), which brings us to the Onkalo repository, the world’s first attempt to create a permanent repository for nuclear waste. It’s located in a series of tunnels hewn out of solid bedrock situated about 300 km northwest of Helsinki and it isn’t expected to be filled and decommissioned until the 22nd century—by which point we’ll probably need a whole lot more, similar facilities assuming we continue to use nuclear power.

Madsen has a flair for the dramatic as well as an outstanding visual sense and Into Eternity is nothing like a typical message documentary that outlines its arguments, bolsters them with talking heads, and proffers a solution. Instead, he strives to create a mood through slow tracking shots through the tunnels and across snow-packed fields, an almost mystical voice-over narration (several times introduced by the dramatic striking of a match in the darkness), and a series of interviews and testimonies from experts who often seem bemused by what they are saying. In contradistinction to the immensity of the problem and the lack of obvious solutions, the film maintains a calm and philosophic air with the camera observing it all from a distance. First-rate cinematography by Heikki Färm (who can make even a medical testing facility look fascinating) and a well-chosen, eclectic soundtrack including everything from Karsten Fundal and Kraftwerk to Sibelius and Philip Glass make Into Eternity a sensual as well as an intellectual pleasure.

Into Eternity may be the most honest, as well as the most beautiful, documentary you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t pretend to have a simple solution to a complex problem, doesn’t ask you to text a number to donate to the filmmaker’s worthy cause, and understands that film is a constructed medium. When Madsen puts himself on camera, he’s performing. So are the people he interviews, and the clothes they wear and the background included in the shot are part of that performance as it is delivered to the audience. Madsen includes many long tracking shots in Into Eternity, so many that they draw attention to themselves, underlining the fact that what you are seeing is what he chose to show you. By making these and other directorial choices clear Madsen achieves a new kind of realism and honesty through highly artificial means. | Sarah Boslaugh

Into Eternity will be screened as part of the Webster University Film Series on May 27, 28 and 29 at 7:30 pm in Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Admission is $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, and $4 for Webster University faculty and staff. Go to for more information.



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