Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly opens with a scene of desperation: in the dead of night, a woman in a trench coat paces back and forth on the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride. The man who ultimately picks her up, Mike, soon finds himself grappling with her murder and with a web of intrigue revolving around a mysterious suitcase, a MacGuffin whose contents are never made entirely clear to the viewer. But when Mike is cornered by a man who seems to be working for the US government, the man tries to give him a sense of just how deeply he is in over his head: “Now listen, Mike, listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words, harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.” So potent are these phrases, it is assumed, that the man does not need to elaborate further. They are meant to index, or conjure, a dense constellation of dangers and secrets so aggressively protected that to pursue them is to risk flying too close to the sun—or, in other words, to attempt to access what anthropologist Joseph Masco calls “the nuclear sublime,” the overwhelming and incomprehensible power of the nuclear bomb.1
A classic of noir cinema, Kiss Me Deadly is also uniquely engaged with its Cold War context. It is no accident that Aldrich uses noir aesthetics to tell this particular story at this particular moment in US history. “Film noir,” writes Paul Schrader in his essay “Notes on Film Noir” (1972), “was first of all a style,” living out its conventions in “the more subtle qualities of tone and mood” rather than a genre constrained by narrative conventions. Because of this, and because “it worked out its conflicts visually rather than thematically … it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological problems.”2
In other words, while noir does tend to include crime elements and thematize societal ills, noir is also—and, perhaps, above all else—a feeling: the feeling of realizing one’s own helplessness when faced with the vast networks of power that pull the levers on everyday life. Noir goes straight for the dark underbelly, lingers in it, and ultimately reveals it to constitute the modern world.
What aesthetic could be more appropriate to the nuclear age? And what topic could be more apt than nuclear science when thinking about the networks of power shaping life in the Cold War and its aftermath? Recent works, including the television series Dark and the documentary miniseries Chernobyl, carry the aesthetics and concerns of Aldrich’s 1955 classic into our own age, constituting a strain of media that could be called nuclear noir.
The German TV series Dark tells the story of Jonas Kahnwald, a teenager growing up in a small town in western Germany, Winden, whose economy is dominated by a soon-to-be-dismantled nuclear power plant. The series begins with the disappearance of Mikkel Nielsen, the younger brother of one of Jonas’s friends. The search for Mikkel soon grows stranger than the inhabitants of Winden could ever have expected: within a few episodes, it becomes clear that barrels of nuclear waste stored in a cave adjacent to the power plant have ripped open a hole in time, and that nuclear apocalypse looms if Jonas and the other inhabitants of Winden do not play their cards right.
Over the next two seasons, the accepted parameters of the known world unravel just as steadily as the kinship relations between the townspeople work themselves into a tighter and tighter knot. Two lovers turn out, due to time travel, to be an aunt and her nephew; a woman realizes that she is her own daughter’s child; a mother travels 32 years into the future, only to watch her daughter, who has not seen her for decades, die of cancer. The resulting family tree is so convoluted that Netflix has created an interactive website just for viewers to trace familial relations between the characters. Fans trade diagrams on internet forums in an attempt to make sense of the recursions and intertwinings of the plot, and it is nearly impossible to keep track of the series if one attempts to pick up, weeks later, where one left off.
This is a world that nuclear fission has rendered perverse, glitched, perhaps permanently so. Altering the fundamental building blocks of matter, it seems, has altered the fundamental building blocks of everyday life.
HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl also depicts a world in which it is impossible to get one’s bearings. However, Chernobyl is not science fiction. Rather, it is a TV adaptation of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, a book of interviews conducted in the years immediately after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown.
Like Dark, Chernobyl depicts a series of perversions. A firefighter who participated in the cleanup of the exploded reactor dies with his entire body slick with blood, his wounds caused by an invisible source; residents of Pripyat, the town adjacent to the Chernobyl plant, are made to evacuate a town that looks unaltered from the week before.
What both shows offer up are metaphysical mysteries, ones that arise as a result of what, in retrospect, seems to be human hubris in the face of the universe. And both mysteries have—as most noirs do—their detectives.
Chernobyl sees Ulana Khomyuk, a Belarusian nuclear scientist, racing between archives and offices across the Soviet Union in a desperate attempt to figure out how it was possible for a nuclear reactor to explode in the first place. And Dark features a constellation of investigators: Charlotte Doppler and Ulrich Nielsen, the Winden police officers trying to explain the string of disappearances in the town; Jonas, stumbling from decade to decade, struggling to separate truth from fiction and prevent (or, possibly, bring about) the end of the world; and Claudia Tiedemann, the director of the Winden nuclear power plant, who is on her own quest to figure out the parameters of the new universe and influence its course.
These present-day flatfoots occupy worlds that convey the crushing enormity of their unknowns aesthetically. Their settings are rendered in dulled colors, their intrigue is devoid of special effects, and their action occurs primarily at night, culminating in a noir that is decidedly nuclear in flavor.
The settings for the detective work in question provide a particularly potent example. In recurrent establishing shots, both the Winden Police Department (the workplace of Charlotte and Ulrich) and the Byelorussian Institute for Nuclear Energy (Ulana’s workplace) are set against skies so bleak and filmed in such grim lighting that both shots almost seem to be in gray scale. Here the viewer is confronted with two instances of mid-to-late 20th-century architecture, inlaid with perfectly geometric windows and doors and devoid of visible human life. The result is that they take on the look of epistemological tombs. The modern buildings—built for two separate but intertwined projects of modern knowledge formation—house undertakings that are doomed from the start, anachronistic, incommensurate with an ontologically altered world.
Yet another set of shots starkly illustrates the stakes of these two investigations. Spirited forth from 1986 to 2018, Dark’s Claudia Tiedemann, the director of the Winden nuclear power plant, walks into the Winden public library in oversized sunglasses and a trench coat.3 She carries a large brown suitcase, which—like the one in Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly—contains a nuclear secret: a time machine that runs on energy drawn from the barrels of nuclear waste hidden in the Winden caves. Bookshelves packed with reference books extend down a hallway toward a vanishing point, just as, in a strikingly similar shot, the card catalogs that surround Chernobyl’s Ulana Khomyuk in the Moscow archives when she goes there looking for documents seem endless.
In both settings, information is on gaudy display, in its most archetypal form, thousands upon thousands of volumes of it. And yet, in both cases, the answers to the questions that torture these women are nowhere to be found in catalogs and endless stacks. What little relevant information does exist is carefully controlled by the powerful figures who possess it. Ulana creates a page-long bibliography of documents she wants to access; the archivist refuses her all but one, which turns out to be nothing more than a table of contents. Claudia finds a newspaper clipping documenting her own disappearance in 1986 (32 years or 15 minutes ago, depending on who’s doing the talking), but she finds nothing to shed light on how, exactly, this disappearance could have been possible, or what to do next.
The year of Claudia’s disappearance—1986—figures prominently in both series, for very similar reasons. In Dark, 1986 is the year that Bernd Doppler, at that time the director of the Winden plant, stashes barrels of nuclear waste in the Winden caves after a plant accident; the Netflix interactive website for Dark actually time-pegs the Winden plant accident with reference to the Chernobyl disaster (“weeks after the Chernobyl incident”). In other words, the fact that 1986 serves as an origin point in both series is no mistake, and it is also no mistake that this origin point is related to the peaceful atom gone awry rather than to the bomb.
At the time of the Chernobyl explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall was only three years off, Gorbachev and his doctrine of glasnost were shaping policy in the USSR, and the threat of the bomb had begun to loom a little less ominously. But a new threat was making itself known: lethal forms of environmental contamination. The extent of the contamination at Love Canal, New York, made headlines in 1978; the Three Mile Island meltdown took place in 1979; and the explosion at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands in 1984, meaning that Chernobyl came on the heels of a dramatic string of industrial disasters. In 1986, it was suddenly seeming less like the world would end in a bang, and more like it might peter out in a series of whimpers effected by untouchable corporations and politicians.
In the third episode of Dark, Claudia Tiedemann confronts Bernd Doppler about the power plant’s records, which do not match the officially reported numbers. The public has lost faith in nuclear power after the Chernobyl disaster, he says. They saw the pictures. When Claudia demands a clearer explanation, he takes her down to the Winden caves, stopping near the entrance when his wheelchair can take him no farther.
Bernd hands Claudia a flashlight. “What we know is a drop,” he says. “What we don’t know is an ocean.”
Noir goes straight for the dark underbelly, lingers in it, and ultimately reveals it to constitute the modern world. What aesthetic could be more appropriate to the nuclear age?
The US Department of Energy has a blog, and in July 2020 a post appeared on that blog in response to an episode of the Netflix series History 101. The DOE post claimed to separate fact from fiction, asserting that “nuclear power plants are not used to make nuclear weapons,” that “exposure to small doses of radiation is not likely to cause cancer,” and that “nuclear meltdowns are not immediate threats.”
What is true is that these assertions do represent accepted scientific knowledge on the part of the major nuclear powers. But the DOE’s assertions also, incidentally, summarize the claims made by top US and Soviet nuclear scientists in response to the Chernobyl meltdown, claims that have since been challenged by local doctors and nuclear scientists in Ukraine and Belarus,4 as well as a good number of historians, anthropologists, and sociologists whose research deals with the aftermath of the Chernobyl incident.5
One of the keys to grasping the significance of Chernobyl is understanding that it was not just a threat to public health but a threat to popular opinion. Suddenly the peaceful atom was not looking so peaceful anymore, and this was at a moment when the United States and the USSR were becoming increasingly reliant on nuclear energy to provide power to their enormous populations.
In Manual for Survival, historian of science Kate Brown documents the mutual interest of the United States and the USSR in minimizing the extent of the threats resulting from the Chernobyl meltdown. US scientists did not actively cover up evidence. However, as Brown shows, the concerns of local doctors and scientists working on the ground in affected areas in Ukraine and Belarus who challenged the literature on radiation threat were largely brushed aside. And the international body that led the official assessment of the incident’s health effects, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was run largely by scientists with an interest in maintaining popular support for nuclear power.
The official death toll of the Chernobyl incident ranges between 31 and 54.6 Taking into account the number of people who died from highly unusual afflictions in the affected areas in the aftermath of the event, Brown suggests that the minimum range is closer to 35,000–150,000.7
To call Dark and Chernobyl “nuclear noir” is to recognize two things: first, that noir is an ideal aesthetic for invoking the secrecy and danger that surround nuclear energy production, and second, that as of the past four years or so, a growing, albeit small, number of shows have made use of noir aesthetics to grapple with themes related to nuclear energy production.
Occupied, a Norwegian drama created by Nordic noir royalty Jo Nesbø, depicts a near future in which Norway completely converts to nuclear energy and is invaded by Russia as a result. Netflix’s Finnish noir series Deadwind, due to release its third season in fall 2021, features a corporate conspiracy involving experimental nuclear-waste disposal. And even Stranger Things, although not noir, makes liberal use of nighttime settings and deals centrally with scientific experiments conducted by the Department of Energy.8 A highly popular fan theory holds that the fourth season, which will likely be released in early 2022, will incorporate the Chernobyl incident centrally into its plot.
These shows are, in some ways, fighting the other side of a public-relations battle with the DOE. While Chernobyl was celebrated by critics, the first page of Google search results for “Chernobyl HBO” turns up only critical reviews.9 The first and most critical among them is a downright polemical article by James Conca, who is an affiliate scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a consultant for the Department of Energy.10
In the article, he discredits the local physicians interviewed by Alexievich, citing Robert Gale, a radiation doctor who flew to Chernobyl immediately after the incident. Gale is painted in a damning light by Kate Brown in Manual for Survival;11 he also, incidentally, published a highly negative four-part review of HBO’s Chernobyl in his online newsletter.12
There are serious stakes to bad PR for proponents of nuclear energy. The United States currently gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants,13 and it does so very quietly, without generating nearly the same amount of public awareness as, say, its fracking or coal mining do. Most recently, nuclear has—quietly—made its way into President Biden’s renewable-energy plan, the peaceful atom doing a wardrobe change and coming back onstage as the green atom. Making the way that nuclear science has altered our world visible, and doing so by embracing an aesthetics of suspicion, has real political stakes. And in a world that will always be plagued by natural disasters and the vicissitudes of human error, these stakes are not likely to lessen anytime soon.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 57. ↩
- Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment, vol. 8, no. 1 (1972), p. 13. ↩
- If the library depicted in this episode—replete with an enormous reading room and halls of closely set book stacks—seems comically outsize for a tiny town like Winden, this is because it is: the library scenes in this episode were filmed at the Berlin State Library, home to 23.4 million volumes and counting as the 15th-largest library in the world. ↩
- Due to both natural wind patterns and geoengineered cloud seeding aiming to divert radiation away from Moscow, the vast majority of areas that suffered from radioactive fallout from Chernobyl were actually in Belarus, not in Ukraine. ↩
- See, e.g., Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (Norton, 2019); Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (Princeton University Press, 2002); Olga Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl (MIT Press, 2014). ↩
- Brown, Manual for Survival, p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., p. 310. ↩
- The DOE was so irked by the way it was depicted in Stranger Things that the show got its own blog post—“What ‘Stranger Things’ Didn’t Get Quite-So-Right about the Energy Department”—and emails from the DOE obtained by the Washington Free Beacon via an FOIA request show internal discussion about a draft of the blog post wherein employees actually refute many of the post’s claims, some of which were seemingly edited out of the final version, particularly those stating that “the Energy Department doesn’t explore parallel universes” and, apparently, that the DOE wasn’t involved with human experiments and did not manufacture weapons. ↩
- Although some of these pieces are only partially critical, they all have titles that make them seem fundamentally so at first glance—enough that the first page of search results makes it seem like the consensus on the show is that it is fundamentally inaccurate. ↩
- James Conca, “How HBO Got It Wrong on Chernobyl,” Forbes, June 27, 2019. ↩
- Brown, Manual for Survival, pp. 23–25. E.g., “Soviet doctors charged that some men, who would have lived, died because of Gale’s bone marrow transplants. … Volunteering to help with Chernobyl patients enabled Gale to carry out unorthodox drug tests on human subjects without onerous American regulations” (p. 24). ↩
- Robert Peter Gale, “Chernobyl, the HBO Miniseries: Fact and Fiction,” Cancer Letter, May 17 and 24, June 14 and 21, 2019. ↩
- The three countries that get the highest percentages of their electricity from nuclear power plants are France at 67 percent, Slovakia at 54 percent, and Ukraine at 52 percent. In other words, it is also no accident that all the shows in question were made in the United States or Europe. This is not taking into account energy used in heating or transportation. ↩