Danish artist Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which had its local premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, documents an anti-monument to negativity. Admirably forward-thinking, if undeniably quixotic, Finland’s government has undertaken the task of digging a hole in which to bury nuclear waste deep in the earth. Located 100 miles northwest of Helsinki, Onkalo (Finnish for “hiding place”) is intended to last 100,000 years; the first—and, so far, the only—such tomb (which will hold only a fraction of the world’s spent nuclear fuel) is a place that, as the filmmaker puts it, humans must remember to forget.
As befits its science-fiction premise, much of Into Eternity purports to address the people of the future—perhaps they will happen upon Onkalo (“this place where you should never come”) just as a group of French teenagers stumbled upon the cave paintings at Lascaux in 1940. The rest of the movie addresses the nature of these future people, as discussed by Onkalo’s creators, an eminently reasonable cast of engineers, scientists, and academics, mainly ensconced in pristine laboratories. Will the future people recognize as poison that which has been interred in this vast cavern or, as in some fatal myth, will they mistake it for something else? What should be put on the warning marker? Could any inscription deter the tomb raiders of 102,000 A.D.? Someone suggests Munch’s The Scream. (How about the last 20 minutes of Kiss Me Deadly?) Human nature being what it is, any warning might only incite curiosity. But then again, extrapolating human nature tens of thousands of years into the future is a fool’s game—a “decision under uncertainty,” one scientist explains, an equation rife with unknowns. A civilization of giant cockroaches might well feed on Onkalo’s treasure.
Into Eternity is not so much warning (although it is that) as head trip. Madsen’s crisp, coolly symmetrical images evoke both the clean lines of Finnish functional design and Errol Morris’s formalism—as does the gravitas-inducing slo-mo and ironic use of music (Sibelius, Varèse, Kraftwerk). Defamiliarizing the snowy Nordic landscape, this delicately lurid documentary has a somber beauty. It is meant to boggle the mind and inspire awe—and it does. As in 2001 or The Time Machine, the story of the human race comes full circle. The unknown past meets the unknowable future in a wintry ground zero.