The Chamber You Must Always Remember To Forget

INTERVIEW. Michael Madsen's "Into Eternity" is a mesmerizing reflection on the construction of the world's first permanent storage facility for nuclear waste. A reflection that Madsen, who comes from the art world, expresses in images, sound and music rather than logical statements.

When he first heard of Onkalo, Michael Madsen had a hard time believing the time scale. 100,000 years – that's how long this gigantic network of underground tunnels that is being blasted into solid Finnish bedrock is intended to last.

"I wanted to create an element of distance in relation to the present by stylising the images and sound effects."

"I wanted to create an element of distance in relation to the present by stylising the images and sound effects."

"I got started on the film because I was curious to find out how one can relate to that perspective," Madsen says. "100,000 years, that's well beyond my own comprehension. So, I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the experts who actually have to deal with it."


Photo of director Michael Madsen
Photo: Søren Solkær Starbird

Michael Madsen

Born 1971, Denmark. Director and conceptual artist. Works in the field of music, art and sound production. Director of "To Damascus – a Film on Interpretation" (2005) and the highly successful "Into Eternity" (2009), winner of the Nordic Documentary Award at Nordisk Panorama and the Grand Prix in Nyon. "Into Eternity" is selected for Reflecting Images and Green Screen Competition at IDFA.

Magic Hour Films

Set up in 1984, Magic hour Films has produced a wealth of short films and documentaries as well as feature films. Documentary films include "Can You Die in Heaven?" (Erlend E. Mo, 2005), "In a Soldier's Footsteps" (Mette Zeruneith, 2005), "My Eyes" (Erlend E. Mo, 2006), "On the Way to Paradise" (Suvi helminen, 2007). "BURMA VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country" (Anders Østergaard, 2008) is recipient of more than 40 awards, among these IDFA's Joris Ivens Pris, and "Into Eternity" (Michael Madsen, 2009) winner of the Grand Prix in Nyon and Best Nordic Documentary at Nordisk Panorama, is selected for Reflecting Images and Green Screen Competition at IDFA.

"I seriously doubt that we will still be here in 100,000 years. That there will be people around who think like us. It may well be that they have two arms and two legs and still look like us, but they will most likely perceive the world differently. How, then, should we understand what we're building today that is to last so long, and how do we communicate it to the future? This was what I wanted to explore," the director says. "Next question is how to create a film that gives an idea of what such a time scale entails."

The Effect of Alienation

Madsen uses a high degree of stylisation in "Into Eternity" to convey this mind-boggling theme.

"I wanted to create an element of distance in relation to the present by stylising the images and sound effects. In that way I try to draw the audience out of our own time and catapult them into the future so that they can see better and experience new aspects of themselves," says Madsen, who appears in the film as a myth teller of sorts, modeling the history of nuclear power on the myth of Prometheus who stole the fire from the gods. Madsen directs his fable to future generations as a warning about Onkalo, which means "hiding place".

"This time scale of 100,000 years is a fantastic vantage points for a documentary. To me, documentary filmmaking means precisely to see new sides of reality. And the key to that, I believe, is to work with some kind of alienation effect. I can't just put up a camera, I have to find a way to make the camera see, so I can catch sight of the meanings that are actually there."

Framegrab from Into Eternity
"Into Eternity". Framegrab

Empty Universes

"I talked to the photographers and sound people about how we could give the impression that we're visiting this facility at Onkalo as a traveler from the future, from a point where everything about the present has been forgotten. The key design component in Onkalo is precisely oblivion. When the facility is finished and sealed off in 120 years, it will be able to operate without human intervention, in silent mode so to speak, because the scientists expect that our civilisation will end at some point within the 100,000-year time scale."

"To capture this state of oblivion we saw the camera as a being of sorts, an entity. Except for the scenes where experts sit and talk, we worked with the camera that way. When it comes into a room or is filming outside it won't necessarily seek out the things we normally find important, for example a group of people in a room. It would rather point to whatever comes its way."

The visual inspiration Madsen found in specific films: "Le Samouraï" by Melville, "L'Eclisse" by Antonioni, and "Elephant" by Gus Van Sant.

"What characterizes these directors is their enormous visual precision. The universes they create are extremely empty, and that's something I really appreciate, because it allows a level of abstraction. There's room to say something else. Van Sant's "Elephant" has very long takes, and it's really unclear what's happening. The time is just passing for these teenage kids. The stedicam-movements and the long takes in Into Eternity are very much inspired by this – and also by the opening scene from "Alien", which is another film I admire. We give the audience time to look at people and experience the situations."

"I wasn't trained as a documentarian. I come from the art world and take my inspiration mostly from fiction, art and the history of ideas. This provides a cross-fertilization of expressions that really gives me something to work with."

Another example of this cross-fertilization is the film's soundtrack. Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity", for instance, accompanies the scenes with men and women in white coats filmed in slow motion in the science fiction-like storage rooms where radioactive waste is submerged in water tanks. "I wondered if it would be too much of a cliche. But no, I thought, it's kind of cool that the reference between the music and nuclear power is so obvious."

Madsen also makes use of classic works by Arvo Pärt, our time's most prominent composer of sacred music, and Finland's own Sibelius, and "Into Eternity" fades out to a piece by the father of modern electronic music, Edgar Varese, whose aria "A Vast Black Sleep" creates an impressively solemn finale in the ink-black depths of the Onkalo cave.

Framegrab from Into Eternity
"Into Eternity". Framegrab

Vantage Points

"When I started writing the screenplay, I worked very associatively, because I had a strong feeling that this place at Onkalo and the people working there already were in a sort of afterworld. There was something unreal, something uncanny that had already crept into this place due to the time frame.

"I saw the film as a kind of requiem. The people are portrayed very fleetingly and small in scale compared to the machines and the cave and rocks. The film also takes place in winter, like we're on the verge of a new ice age. Nature is like a separate world. At one point in the film, you see a reindeer looking up, indifferently. The animals may well feel that something is going on, but they are in a different form of reality, one that probably will last much longer than the one we humans inhabit. Maybe because nature as such doesn't want anything? Nature has another kind of momentum, another kind of movement within. Compared to that, we humans will necessarily fail."

If you really expect to be able to relate to 100,000 years, such as the construction of Onkalo is the outward expression of, your're juggling with concepts that are heavier than we humans can manage, says Madsen. And here the director voices his scepticism about our belief that we master the world because we have mastered the technology.

"The reason for the many shots that depict vanishing points down long corridors, and outside as well, is to mimic the classical linear perspective that emerges in the Renaissance. That is, the idea of man looking out on the world and mastering it by subjecting it to his vantage point," says the director. "This place is an fitting expression of that ideology."

Framegrab Into Eternity
"Into Eternity". Framegrab

How Do You Create Oblivion

Madsen was surprised that the experts in Finland hadn't been working on some scenarios for the future, should anything go wrong with Onkalo.

"In relation to the long term perspective, the safest solution for them would be that the place were forgotten – as opposed to having some kind of marker, a rune stone which could warn about the dangers buried on the site. The real threat to the facility is not so much the forces of nature unleashed during a coming ice age, but human curiosity. And here lies a paradox: how do you create oblivion?

"What is so fascinating to me is that even though the Finnish engineers would choose not to put a skull at the entrance or whatever, this facility will inadvertently be a sign of some sort. If someone finds it 50,000 years from now, they wouldn't know what it is, but they would certainly be able to say to themselves that it is manmade because it has a symmetry and regularity that you don't find in nature. It will communicate something. And once you suspect that, you start looking for intentions.

"I like to imagine how they will understand our time. They might think: That's strange. There are only technical references, numbers on the walls, but what kind of worldview did these people actually adhere to? They'll find all these high-tech welded copper canisters with radioactive waste, and they'll see it as a legacy handed over from a long-gone society. But they'll wonder at how technical it all is. This says something about our times.