Johan Renck

Films of Johan Renck:

“Chernobyl” - Johan Renck (2019)

Chernobyl (2019) is a historical miniseries dramatizing circumstances and events concerning the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst nuclear power disaster in history.  Created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the five one-hour episodes of this series offer a detailed, multilayered account of what happened and the tragic consequences that followed.  Although this is a documentary and the production team must stick to a factual portrayal, this is one of the most chilling dramas that I have ever seen.  And Chernobyl has a disturbing message and implications that extend well beyond the specific circumstances covered in this story.

The basic facts are pretty well known.  Early in the morning of April 24th, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor in northern Ukraine undergoing a routine safety check experienced an accidental and crippling explosion that led to a dangerous release of nuclear radiation and the threat of a catastrophic total nuclear core meltdown.  But details concerning exactly what happened and why are less well known, and that is primarily due to efforts to suppress information coming out about those events.  Ukraine was then a Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union (USSR), and the Chernobyl reactor was managed by Soviet authorities, who took immediate steps to mitigate the disaster.  Top Soviet officials feared that information coming out about the Chernobyl disaster would damage the reputation of the Soviet nuclear power program and, by association, the international prestige of the USSR.  Nevertheless, there have since been persistent efforts to reveal the true story of what happened.

Even so, there has been widespread disagreement concerning the actual death toll associated with the Chernobyl disaster [1].
  • 31 deaths  – this was the official death toll that the Soviet authorities came to agree on.  However, critics complained that this figure was grossly underestimated and did not take into account deaths due to radiation sickness (acute radiation syndrome, ARS).
     
  • 4,000 deaths.  This number was subsequently arrived at as an estimate on the part of such organizations as the  United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) [2].
     
  • ~200,000 deaths.  However, more realistic consideration on the part of Greenpeace International of the longer-term effects of ARS and induced cancer have led to estimates in the hundreds of thousands [3].  I believe that this is probably the more likely death toll figure.
Whatever the precise death toll might be, we learn from the account given in the Chernobyl miniseries that had it not been for the heroic efforts on the part of some scientists, officials, and workers on the scene that the death toll would have been in the many millions and that the full areas of Ukraine and Belarus (and perhaps more) would have been rendered uninhabitable.  So we need to have a more thorough account about this catastrophe. 

For the production of Chernobyl, Renck and Mazin manage to achieve this goal of a more thorough account by effectively telling the complicated story via the use of multiple narrative threads:
  • What caused the initial explosion? 
    The rather complicated sequence of events that led to the explosion are eventually rather lucidly explained after the tenacious investigations of several key figures.  These are
     

    • Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), a nuclear power expert and the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow who has been summoned by the Soviet Union Communist Party’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) to aid cleanup efforts.  Legasov is a reluctant participant at first, but he eventually becomes the principal protagonist of this story.
       
    • Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers.  Shcherbina is a dedicated party authoritarian, but he becomes persuaded by Legasov’s earnest efforts to follow a more humane path.
       
    • Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist from Minsk. Khomyuk is a relentless truth-seeker, regardless of the personal consequences her efforts may entail.
       
  • Mitigating the disaster
    This involved several, near-suicidal measures undertaken by volunteers following Legasov’s desperate recommendations.  These included three particularly dramatic sequences:
     
    • Three men don deep sea diving equipment to go to the radioactive reactor basement to drain water that has dangerously collected there.
       
    • 400 coal miners volunteer to install a heat exchanger under the reactor in order to prevent a further meltdown.
       
    • 3,828 volunteers are recruited to go in small teams to the roof of the reactor and spend a maximum of 90 seconds each, due to radiation exposure concerns, clearing radioactive graphite from the roof.
       
  • Combating the coverup
    In order to protect the image of Soviet nuclear supremacy, the Soviet authorities continually downplay the dangers and attempt to suppress critical information about the Chernobyl disaster.  They seek to attribute total responsibility for the reactor failure to human operational errors on the part of the reactor’s local managers and operators.  However, Legasov and Khomyuk have determined that the RBMK reactor also had a critical design fault: pressing the reactor’s emergency shutdown button (as the Chernobyl reactor’s operators finally did) would generate a catastrophic explosion in the reactor core. Suppressing information about the reactor’s flaw would prevent necessary measures from being taken to prevent further disasters at the fifteen other, similar RBMK nuclear reactors across the Soviet Union.  Legasov, Khomyuk, and Shcherbina risk and ultimately damage their careers and lives in order to overcome this coverup and ensure this information is brought out.
These three narrative threads are expertly interwoven across the five episodes of Chernobyl.  Along the way there are some dramatic subnarratives that color the above three dramatic themes, particularly the “mitigating the disaster” theme, with a human component.  The most dramatically affective and memorable of these sequences for me were:
  • The firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) from the nearby town of Pripyat responds immediately to the Chernobyl fire.  Unmindful of the personal danger, Ignatenko is exposed to lethal dosages of radiation and is soon gruesomely consumed, literally, by the ravages of ARS.  Ignatenko was a real person, and these scenes show the human tragedy that befell him and his pregnant wife.
     
  • The mining crew that worked to install the heat exchanger beneath the stricken reactor.  These scenes dramatize the unqualified heroism and devotion to duty on the part of ordinary working class people trying to do what is right.
     
  • Shortly after the disaster, hundreds of thousands of citizens were drafted to “liquidate” animals and pets in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (initially an area 30km in radius around the power plant, but later expanded to 2,600 km2) that were presumed to be radioactively contaminated.  This sequence follows a young draftee, Pavel (Barry Keoghan), who is reluctantly trained to scour the countryside and ruthlessly shoot and kill every pet that he encounters.  For me, this had more general implications – it was a dramatized reminder of how young men are recruited into military service around the world and coercively trained to suppress their own natural  instincts for compassion so that they can unfeelingly kill their fellow beings.

All of these narratives and storylines are meticulously well crafted by the series production team, and they feature excellent cinematography by Jakob Ihre and editing by Jinx Godfrey and Simon Smith.  How they managed to stage some of the scenes was a marvel to me.  There is a considerable amount of agitated hand-held camera work, which I often find jarring and ineffective in other productions, but which I found skillfully employed to good effect on this occasion.  And the acting performances are uniformly well done.  I particularly liked the nuanced performance of Jared Harris in the lead role of Valery Legasov.  Harris had earlier effectively played an entirely different character in the role of the fragile King George VI in the television series The Crown (2016-17).  Here in Chernobyl he plays a thoughtful and well-intentioned figure who struggles to find the right path.  And I also appreciated the sensitive performance of Emily Watson in the role of the dedicated nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk.

With respect to the overall veracity of the subject matter, I believe that all of the narratives and storylines in the series have been meticulously researched by the series creators for historical accuracy, but as we might expect, there have been criticisms from some quarters concerning the ultimate authenticity of this account [4,5,6,7,8].  The Russians, in particular, have complained about the whole thing and have even suggested that the Chernobyl disaster was the result of a CIA plot [5].  More tellingly, though, are Masha Gessen’s criticisms of the Chernobyl miniseries [4].  She complains that it falls prey to the “great man” perspectival prejudice prevalent among many historical accounts that reduces complex historical interactions on the part of many participants to just a simplified description of the activities of a few people.  What happened according to these prejudiced accounts can then be attributed to the actions of a few “great men”.  While I respect and generally admire Ms. Gessen’s insights and agree that the “great man” prejudice can often be a problem, I don’t think it applies in this case.

It is true that some dramatic shortcuts were taken in the Chernobyl miniseries.  For example, while Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina were real people, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is a fabricated composition representing the numerous scientists and engineers who assisted  Legasov during the investigations.  This was done for dramatic simplification, and I don’t think the characterological composition here represents a serious shortcoming to the overall telling of the story.  What is more important to this story is it’s overall message, and it is not about a few great, or villainous, men.

No, in this harsh, doom-laden account, the problem depicted is systemic.  The entire society is infected, and the film offers a grim picture of a generally dystopian world from which there seems to be no escape.  In fact from the very outset we know that hopeless annihilation is generally in the offing, when we see Valery Legasov, committing suicide on April 26, 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster.  He was probably suffering from ARS due to high doses of radiation exposure during his investigation and already condemned to death.  He had fought a noble fight, we will ultimately learn, but he had now given up.  And as we then watch the story unfold from the initial explosion two years earlier onward, we are haunted by the knowledge that the people heroically struggling to mitigate the disaster’s consequences are being hit with invisible radiation that will harm and probably kill them. 

And as we see in this story, the catastrophic situation was made worse and irreparable by the harsh authoritarian society in which it took place.  In that society permeated with harsh punishments, order was maintained by fear and menace.  “Official” explanations had to be accepted without recourse to the independent discovery of verifiable truth. 

We have a modern faith that lies will always be uncovered eventually.  As Valery Legasov says before the court,
 “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.  Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
But it can take a long time.  What concerns me is that we now live in a society where hate-filled rhetoric is starting to dominate the political discourse and beclouding the messages of those who are offering reasonable, positive proposals to today’s problems – proposals that can and should be subjected to rational debate and public verification.  This quest for truth is made more difficult when we have an elite that dominates and rigs the public media in order to obscure the truth [9].  And the world is further saddled with a US President who utters and seems to get away with many lies on a daily basis (Trump has uttered an average of more than twelve confirmed lies per day over the course of his presidency) [10,11].  Are people getting so accustomed to these constant lies that they are gradually willing to abandon the noble quest for what is true [12]?

But rather than acquiesce to these gradual steps towards an apocalypse, we can take some practical steps now that can help us avoid future Chernobyls.  One is for us to recognize the inherent dangers associated with energy production facilities that are fundamentally centralized  in location and control and harbor potentially catastrophic elements in connection with their operation.  Human control of such centralized and potentially catastrophic energy resources always has the possibility of going awry, as it did in Chernobyl.  And such is generally the case with nuclear power; therefore its deployment should be abandoned if there is a safer alternative.  And fortunately there is a safer alternative. The distributed and less damaging nature of renewable energy is far preferable.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Deaths due to the Chernobyl disaster”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2019).   
  2. Dick Ahlstrom, "Chernobyl anniversary: The disputed casualty figures", The Irish Times, (2 April 2016).    
  3. “Chernobyl death toll grossly underestimated”, Greenpeace International, (18 April 2006).   
  4. Masha Gessen, “What HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong”, The New Yorker, (4 June 2019).   
  5. Luke Johnson, “The Kremlin peddles a myth of Russia’s past greatness. No wonder it hates ‘Chernobyl.’”, The Washington Post, (12 June 2019).   
  6. Henry Fountain, “Plenty of Fantasy in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl,’ but the Truth Is Real”, The New York Times, (2 June 2019).   
  7. Andrew Whalen, “Chernobyl Disaster's First Responders Share True Stories of Death and Radiation”, Newsweek, (5 June 2019).   
  8. Kent German, “Chernobyl was bleak, brutal and absolutely necessary”, Cnet, (5 June 2019).   
  9. Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, Penguin, (April 23, 2019).
  10. Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “In 869 days, President Trump has made 10,796 false or misleading claims”, The Washington Post, (10 June 2019).       
  11. “In 869 days, President Trump has made 10,796 false or misleading claims”, Fact Checker, “The Washington Post”, (7 June 2019).  
  12. Bret Stephens, “What ‘Chernobyl’ Teaches About Trump”, The New York Times, (20 June 2019).   

“The Lovers’ Wind” - Albert Lamorisse (1978)

French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s The Lovers’ Wind (Le Vent des Amoureux, in Farsi: Badeh Sabah; 1978) is a dreamlike documentary film that scans Iran’s stunningly variegated landscape of both natural and manmade wonders.  Although this is a documentary film, the perspective taken here, somewhat like that of Lamorisse’s earlier short masterpiece The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge, 1956), is that of an ethereal, mystical narrator/observer.  In this case the narrator is the personification of the wind up in the sky, who dreamily marvels at the various scenes he overlooks and sometimes affects.  But our narrator is not the only wind in the sky.  He is the gentle northwest Badeh Sabah (“Lovers’ Wind”), with an aesthetic disposition unlike most of his more blustery and destructive siblings, such as the Badeh Div (“Devil Wind”) and the Badeh Sorkh (“Crimson Wind”).

Lamorisse, the multi-talented producer, director, and writer for this film, was by this time famous for his innovative accomplishments.  This even included his invention in 1957 of the popular and sophisticated strategy board game, Risk, which features the possibility of multi-player alliances among the competing players in search of global conquest.  In the filmmaking sphere, he invented a steady-camera mounting system for helicopters, called “helivison”, which helped support his lifelong fascination for filming aerial subjects, as well as for filming ground-level subjects from the air.

So thanks to his unique aerial documentary capabilities, Lamorisse was commissioned in 1968 by the Iranian Ministry of Art and Culture to make a film celebrating Iran’s magnificent culture, from ancient times up to the present, that would feature his patented aerial photography [1].  After all, Iranian culture, notably its art, poetry, and architecture, has long been a critical contributor to the world.  And owing to its key geopolitical position in connection to the world’s trade routes across Eurasia, Iran’s cultural and economic innovations have spread far and wide across the globe [2].  In addition, Iran’s varied physical landscape features many beautiful elements that are worth calling attention to.

Lamorisse completed much of the shooting for the film in 1969, most of which (about 85 per cent) featured aerial cinematography, accordance with his own poetic view of what the film should be about.  However the advisors of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi felt that Lamorisse’s results to that point had not sufficiently covered recent, more modernistic, accomplishments of the shah’s government.  So they insisted that Lamorisse come back and shoot more material featuring modern industrial developments, particularly the huge Karaj Dam northwest of Tehran.  This would entail more aerial cinematography near the dam, and Lamorisse had concerns about the dangers of flying a helicopter in the vicinity of the high-tension wires connected to the dam (earlier he had had nightmares that he would someday drown in the waters of the Caspian Sea).  The shah’s government persisted with their demands, however, and promised to provide Lamorisse with the shah’s personal helicopter pilot; and finally Lamorisse reluctantly agreed to come back in 1970 for the reshooting [1,3]. 

As it turned out, Lamorisse’s forebodings proved to be correct – during the reshoot his helicopter became entangled in the Karaj dam’s high-tension wires, and he and the helicopter pilot fell to  their untimely deaths.  Albert Lamorisse’s widow, Claude, and his son, Pascal (who as a six-year-old boy had been the star of The Red Balloon), both of whom had been working as assistants on this film’s production, ultimately took up the task of editing and completing the film in accordance with Albert’s original notes.  Finally in 1978 the completed film, in French, was released, and  it soon received a 1979 US Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
The Lovers’ Wind that we have today is certainly a gripping presentation of Albert Lamorisse’s original haunting vision of Iran.  Narrated eloquently by Manouchehr Anvar, who supervised the original French script’s translations into English and Farsi (Persian) versions, and with Guy Tabary’s expressive cinematography and Hosein Dehlavi’s evocative music, the completed work is a masterpiece.  It has finally and thankfully even been shown in 2016 to great acclaim in the country that embodies the film’s subject matter, Iran [4].

As already mentioned, The Lovers’ Wind pays tribute to Iran by showing the country’s fascinating features from the perspective of the wind.  Wind mythology is a feature of all ancient cultures, and winds are variously thought to metaphorically represent disruption, fate, and the forces of change [5].  In the case here we have a unique wind, Badeh Sabah, who looks down with fascination on the changing terrain he surveys.  This aerial perspective is afforded by Lamorisse’s helivision, which due to its front-of-the-helicopter camera mounting (previous helicopter camera mountings looked straight down), enabled a “wind’s-eye-view” of the landscape over which the wind was moving.  This facilitated long, sweeping camera shots from the overhead wind’s perspective as it blew over the land.

The roving narrative of The Lovers’ Wind passes through several stages as it progresses.

1.  Badeh Sabah and His Brothers
At the outset we are introduced to Badeh Sabah, a gentle northwest wind, as we see a dust storm swirling from his perspective.  But as he looks down at the terrain over which he is moving, he shows fascination with the traditional mud-brick human settlements that he encounters in the Iranian countryside.  In particular, he shows interest in manmade badgirs (“wind catchers”), which are traditional Iranian architectural structures for directing wind currents for ventilation purposes [6].  Then he talks about how he has learned to push rain clouds around in order to irrigate the land.  This nurturing approach is in contrast to Badeh Sabah’s bullying and destructive brother winds, such as Badeh Div (“Devil Wind”) and Badeh Sorkh (“Crimson Wind”), who like to wreak havoc on the world. 

As Badeh Sabah comes across windswept, abandoned ruins of ancient Iranian societies, which are now just the playthings of his nihilistic brothers, he contemplates, as he views them, the eternal presence of nomad societies, which never disappear.  Nomads just keep moving and living off the natural land and never stop reappearing.

Then he comes across the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which was destroyed and burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BC.  The full destructive spread of what was initially a small fire is something for which Badeh Sabah’s older brother, Badeh Div, proudly takes credit.  But in stark contrast to his brothers’ love of destruction of human-made structures, Badeh Sabah says he is fond of humans.

2.  Human Monuments
Fascinated with human developments, Badeh Sabah now goes to Isfahan and marvels at the fact that no matter how many times this magnificent city has been invaded, its inhabitants have always obliged its invaders to follow their own appreciation of beauty and culture.  Then Badeh Sabah goes on to Mashad and gazes at the impressive mosques there, after which he further gazes over the Zoroastrian fascinating burial towers in Yazd.  Then he heads south towards the Persian Gulf.

3.  The Sea and Sailors
When Badeh Sabah gets to the Persian Gulf, he overlooks various human-made structures associated with man’s interactions with the sea.  This includes docks, piers, as well as a number of boats, both large and small.  He observes that the winds have long helped sailors move across the waters and reach distant destinations. 

Then he becomes fascinated with and starts following large oil pipelines that run along the ground out from the seaport and off into the land to the north.  As Badeh Sabah traces these pipelines northward, we see them following their sinuous path over barren wilderness and representing a silent, almost mysterious, human presence that has left its mute and cryptic marks across a desolate landscape.

4.  Heading North
As Badeh Sabah continues northward, he starts encountering hitherto unseen greener environments.  He sees a lush world now sculpted with green bushes and trees.  Then he comes upon some steep mountain scenery and finally comes down to stop by for awhile to blow over and look into the Iranian emperor’s modern mausoleum. 

Then continuing northward through picturesque mountainous landscape, Badeh Sabah begins following railroad trains as they head up north along perilous cliffside paths, sometimes temporarily disappearing into long dark tunnels only to reemerge somewhere further on.

Finally Badeh Sabah comes down to gentler terrain, and here expresses his wonder at the natural beauties of terrace farming.  Badeh Sabah seems to prefer these instances of human interactions with nature, because here they manifest not examples of self-glorying human ambitions to defy or overcome nature, but instead examples of man’s efforts to harmonize with nature.  In fact when he gazes down at the terrace-farming ponds’ still waters reflecting images of the clouds in the sky overhead, he expresses his joy over man’s sincere efforts to reflect the sky.

5.  The Caspian Sea
At last Badeh Sabah comes upon the shores of the Caspian Sea, and again he gazes upon small boats moving over the waters.  On a hillside he encounters another fascinating example of a gentle human interaction with nature.  The entire hill has been draped with hundreds of newly crafted Persian carpets set out to dry.  The entire harmony and serenity of this scene is suddenly disrupted, however, by the villainous appearance of Badeh Div, who creates a turbulent wind that begins blowing away all the rugs into the wilderness.  However, Badeh Sabah starts pushing in the opposite direction of Badeh Div’s wind in order to thwart his devilish brother’s malicious intentions.  Again we are seeing an example of Badeh Sabah’s sympathies for humankind and its ways.

Finally, at the close of the film, Badeh Sabah comes across a loving newly wed couple who are desperately fleeing on horseback from the pursuit of the new bride’s possessive and oppressive brothers.  Badeh Sabah quickly intervenes on the lovers’ behalf, mounting a strong wind to hold back the pursuing brothers that allows the fleeing newlyweds to escape.  And he declares that he has finally identified for himself his true identity – he is the Lovers’ Wind.


Over the course of The Lovers’ Wind’s aerial survey of Iran, the viewer is given a feeling not only for the country’s natural wonders, but also for its human interactions with nature, in the form of monuments and activities.  And these human interactions with nature, as well as even human interactions with other people, are often inspired by the infinitely wondrous beauties of nature, itself.  This tendency is what came to inspire the Lover’s Wind’s sympathies.
 
It is my belief, unscientifically arrived at though it may be, that romantic love has long been a feature of Iranian culture, from the poems of Hafez, Attar, and Rumi down to the present day.  Iranian people often have an almost instinctive sensitivity and openness to love’s possibilities.  Hopefully the oppression that currently afflicts the Iranian people will soon be lifted so that they can more naturally express their inherent loving nature that is suggested by The Lovers’ Wind.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Tiffany Malakooti and Lucy Raven, “On Albert Lamorisse’s “The Lovers’ Wind”“, Noise, Bidoun, (Winter, 2010).   
  2. Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Bloomsbury (2015).
  3. Liam Callanan, “The Final Flight of Albert Lamorisse”, Slate, (2 July 2018).   
  4. Mohamadreza Seyedagha, “‘Lovers’ Wind’ Carries Hall Packed to the Hilt”, Financial Tribune, (25 April 2016).   
  5. “List of wind deities”, Wikipedia, (26 May 2019).  
  6. "Windcatcher", Wikipedia, (1 June 2019).