“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” is the quote that J. Robert Oppenheimer famously thought of when he presided over the first successful atomic bomb test back in 1945. Over 70 years later, we are still very much on the brink of such mass destruction, with roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons held by eight countries, not to mention those nations now trying to become nuclear powers themselves. And let’s not forget whose hand is currently on the button in the United States.
In the experimental montage film the bomb, author Eric Schlosser — whose 2014 book Command and Control detailed America’s efforts to secure its vast nuclear arsenal — teamed up with directors Kevin Ford and Smriti Keshari to provide a visual crash course in all things atomic. Composed entirely of archive footage and presented at the Berlinale with a live music accompaniment by electro rock group The Acid, this one-hour assault on the senses is less about informing the viewer than about jarring them into the realization that we are no less safe now than during the height of the Cold War.
As frightening as that sounds — and it should frighten you, which is the point — there is still an enthralling beauty to many of the images on display, especially atomic test films from the 1950s and 60s that show blossoming mushroom clouds, great balls of fire and the devastating effects of nuclear blasts on the land. It’s a beauty that hasn’t escaped filmmakers in the past, ranging from Stanley Kubrick and the finale of Dr. Strangelove to avant-garde director Bruce Conner with his movie Crossroads, which compiled footage of the Bikini Atoll test in mesmerizing ways.
The piece by Schlosser, Keshari and Ford is not quite chronological and begins with a series of military parades that show various armies displaying their nuclear might. We then jump around in time to the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, including the Trinity test supervised by Oppenheimer, along with footage showing how the a-bomb can tear apart homes, cars, buses, human mannequins and actual livestock. There are also excerpts from the “Duck and Cover” safety films that the U.S. government put out in the 1950s, instructing the public on how to possibly survive a full-on nuclear attack.
But images of the bleak devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reveal that survival, especially nearby ground zero, would be miraculous, while the effects of radiation poisoning can be deadly for decades. One could perhaps find solace in the fact that a nuclear arm has not actually been used in warfare since those two bombings in 1945, but footage of several near-fatal accidents — such as the Damascus Titan II explosion at the heart of Schlosser’s book — mean we are never fully safe, nor does the fact that such weapons continue to be used by governments as both a threat and a deterrent.
With its short running time and live music backing, it’s hard to see how the bomb could receive a typical theatrical release. Rather, the filmmakers should consider taking their performance piece on tour, crossing the U.S. to show audiences what kind of risks we run by still maintaining nuclear arms, and why we absolutely need to annihilate them.
Directors: Kevin Ford, Smriti Keshari, Eric Schlosser
Producers: Smriti Keshari, Eric Schlosser
Editor: Kevin Ford
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Sales: Visit Films