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By the Bomb’s Filmic Light

The nuclear threat on screen—from Winter Light to Twin Peaks

Winter Light begins during the ceremonial blessing of the Eucharist in a small country church in Sweden, the world at bay—frozen, austere. Cynicism clouds the priest Tomas’s spirit, which only hardens when he meets with his parishioner Jonas Persson, a father so shaken by the threat of nuclear war that his wife must speak for him. Winter Light finished filming during the winter of 1962, ten months before the Cuban Missile Crisis and two years before the release of Stanley Kubrick’s arch satire Dr. Strangelove, but Ingmar Bergman’s film feels like a snapshot out of time. To include the consequences of nuclear weapons among the film’s existential investigations feels almost anachronistic, until our timeless preoccupation with the incomprehensibility of human suffering is considered. As Tomas says, “If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become more understandable. And this death would be a snuffing out of life.”

But to reduce Bergman’s film to an allegory about, or a meditation on, the threat of nuclear cataclysm would be a mistake, just as it would be to reduce its spiritual successor, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), to a study of ecological collapse. Any given work of art’s significance extends beyond its most obvious themes. Bergman’s sparse drama remains, however, one of the best cinematic engagements with the terror of nuclear war—a relative outlier across decades of films that have cumulatively rendered banal the threat of mass death.

The nuclear era of American cinema has been over for a long time. What once inspired a soul-wrenching, destabilizing horror has become little more than a mundane nuisance for the latest superhero, a footnote to the dread machinations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The declining urgency of the nuclear threat has many causes. Writing for the Guardian earlier this year, Daniel Immerwahr, professor of history at Northwestern University, lamented not just our growing collective amnesia about Hiroshima and the scads of apocalyptic close calls of the twentieth century but the advancing age of its survivors. “Those who have most effectively testified to nuclear war’s horrors are entering their nineties,” he writes. “Our nuclear consciousness is badly atrophied. We’re left with a world full of nuclear weapons but emptying of people who understand their consequences.”

Neither nuance nor reverence would characterize the vast majority of mainstream films preoccupied with the threat of nuclear holocaust.

Following the United States’ indiscriminate slaughter of well over one hundred thousand—quite possibly more—civilians in Japan in 1945, the military establishment, ignoring concerns over the implications of global nuclear war, plowed ahead. They doggedly pursued the development and testing of the hydrogen bomb while also building up a massive arsenal of “conventional” nuclear warheads. This era, from the fifties through the sixties, spawned some of the most iconic images of nuclear peril: the mushroom cloud rising over tropical isles; fake suburban homes blasted away; onlookers, cocktails in hand, gathered on rooftops in Nevada to watch the horizon for telltale signs of another successful test of a device capable of instantaneously incinerating human flesh. Then as now, these images function as commodified pageantry and propaganda: a macabre juxtaposition of military might and spectacular entertainment.

Upon returning to New York from the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, where the first nuclear weapon was developed, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, echoing Tomas in Winter Light, mused on the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima:

I sat in a restaurant in New York, for example, and I looked out at the buildings, and I began to think, you know, about how much the radius of the Hiroshima bomb damage was and so forth . . . How far from here was Thirty-Fourth Street? . . . All those buildings, all smashed — and so on. And I would go along, and I would see people building a bridge, or they’d be making a new road, and I thought, they’re crazy, they just don’t understand, they don’t understand. Why are they making new things? It’s so useless. But, fortunately, it’s been useless for almost forty years now, hasn’t it?

Out of this frenetic time came films that span from the grave to the ridiculous. Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) examines the generational and philosophic weight of the bombing of Hirsohima through an interracial relationship between a French woman named Elle and a Japanese man named Lui. Like Winter Light, Resnais’s film holds the bomb itself at a distance while still engaging deeply with its implications; wonder, ambivalence, and fear pervade the conversations between Elle and Lui. “What did Hiroshima mean to you, in France?” Lui asks. “The end of the war . . . completely, I mean. Amazement that they dared, amazement that they succeeded. And for us, the start of an unknown fear. Then indifference. And fear of that indifference.”

Neither nuance nor reverence would characterize the vast majority of mainstream films preoccupied with the threat of nuclear holocaust that American filmmakers produced over the following decades. 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire revels in the spectacular nonsense of nuclear tests that throw the Earth off its axis. Ladybug Ladybug (1963), which almost plays as an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, dramatizes the Cuban Missile Crisis’s psychological effects on schoolteachers who must escort their students home after a bomb warning sounds.

But it’s 1964’s Fail Safe that stands out for its totalizing preoccupation with a nuclear war that actually comes to pass—analogous to other films of its time though far more dour, even cynical. The source material, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s novel of the same name, was deemed so similar to Dr. Strangelove and its source novel that its author and Stanley Kubrick filed a copyright infringement lawsuit. (As a result, Fail Safe was released, at Kubrick’s insistence, eight months after Dr. Strangelove and so pales in popularity.) In the film, a computer error orders an American bomber group to strike Moscow with nuclear weapons, with attendant military protocols preventing any communication between the bombers and the government. The president of the United States, played by Henry Fonda, struggles to halt the strike and finally decides to target American nuclear weapons at New York City as the most terrible penance for accidentally destroying the USSR’s largest city. Of course, the truth was more ridiculous, more patently insane, than fiction: in 1960, American generals put the finishing touches on a first-strike plan in which 3,423 nuclear bombs would be dropped on the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe in the event of a non-nuclear conflict with the USSR. Analysts estimated that around six hundred million people would die.

At any rate, films like Fail Safe were rare, while more eccentric what-if scenarios—Planet of the Apes (1968), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)—came to be the primary mode of engagement with the fact that a technological failure, a miscommunication, a bombastic flare of stupidity might, in a matter of moments, annihilate most of human life on earth. Arguably, it took until 1982 to capture the grim absurdities of this era without the veneer of fiction. That year, The Atomic Cafe, a documentary at once hilarious and mortifying, posed incisive questions about the United States’ demented nuclear policy and its relentless disinformation through a montage of test footage, newsreels, instructional videos, and government propaganda that touted the effectiveness of America’s nuclear arsenal and the remarkable ease with which the American people might avoid the catastrophe that struck Hiroshima. In one sequence, an animated PSA extoling the benefits of a fallout shelter while decrying cynical doomsayers who have “a short circuit in their brain” is juxtaposed with an interview with Professor Seymour Melman of Columbia University. He suggests that “we ought to learn something from the Second World War in this respect. And the bombing there, even by Second World War bombs, on Hamburg, on Tokyo and on other cities, showed that such shelters became centers for incinerating or asphyxiating the people who are in them.” The film then cuts to an ad for new “Titan” homes built with “$1,000,000 worth of protection” from a possible nuclear blast.

Superman’s Four Easy Steps to Global Disarmament. | YouTube

In July 1987, Superman, with the enthusiastic participation of the nations of the world, gathered up every single nuclear weapon yet produced and threw them into the sun. This gesture, and the film within which it takes place, marked a turning point in the potency of the nuclear threat in the collective imagination. That December, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, also known as the INF Treaty, an arms control agreement years in the making that effectively banned ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with certain range capabilities. By the summer of 1991, nearly three thousand of these weapons, both nuclear and conventional, had been decommissioned. That same year, President George H. W. Bush and General Secretary Gorbachev signed another treaty, START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) that further reduced the number of nuclear weapons. And by that Christmas, the USSR had entered its terminal term, bringing the contest between the two global superpowers to an end. It seemed, for a moment, that the existential turmoil and fear born with the Hiroshima bombing had been diminished not with propaganda or denial, but with diplomacy.

Most filmmakers have been perfectly content with denial—diminishing the threat of nuclear holocaust by representing it as absurd, improbable, or easily avoided. 

Two decades into the twenty-first century, the risk of nuclear war is again on the rise—though it remains, for most, at a remove, seemingly irrelevant to daily life. How can we keep a sustainable balance of attention between the immediate (rent, food, health) and what could fairly be deemed intangible (the annihilation of human life)? The language of the nuclear threat becomes almost comedic—even within the bounds of this piece—vacillating between “peril” and “crisis,” “war” and “utter annihilation,” terms that, through repeated use, become monotonous, cartoonish. But the threat remains: the United States is in the midst of spending close to $800 billion to modernize its existing arsenal and still refuses to commit to a no-first-use policy, which means it retains the “right” to deploy nuclear weapons first in the event of a conflict. Nine nations possess, together, just over nine thousand active warheads. And yet, dwelling upon the cinematic landscape in which nuclear weapons and their fantastical offshoots exist, any insistent, pressing sense of urgency continues to be absent.

For someone like Tom Cruise, the bigger the danger, the better the spectacle. Over the course of the never-ending Mission: Impossible franchise, the threat of nuclear war is present but never bears out—thanks to the heroic efforts of Cruise himself. Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry, comes closest to depicting something like real dread in its opening sequences, when the audience is led to believe three nuclear weapons, smuggled through the black market, have been detonated at the major holy sites of Mecca, the Vatican, and Jerusalem. It turns out to be a ruse in the end, but more revealing than the film’s fast-and-loose play with mass death is the utter amorphousness of its villains, who come from every conceivable intelligence agency and have no coherent ideology other than the motto, “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.”

The logical terminus of this tendency of filmmakers is that the immensity of nuclear holocaust comes to inspire little more than a shrug for its apparent lack of consequence. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christopher Nolan has Batman save Gotham from a neutron bomb by flying it a few miles from the coast and dropping it into the ocean—not unlike Superman’s trip to the sun in 1987. That same year, the first Avengers film concluded with Iron Man saving New York by throwing a warhead through a tear in the fabric of space-time to incinerate an evil alien race, preparing audiences for the brutal calculus of Thanos, who exterminates half of the universe six years later in Avengers: Infinity War.

There are notable exceptions to this general tendency to downplay the unfathomable: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return brings a visceral horror to nuclear weapons not seen in decades. In an extended, collage-like sequence set to “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” Lynch represents the first nuclear test on July 16, 1945, with surreal, chaotic scenes of fire, cosmic distortion, and primordial creation—indeed, Lynch seems to posit it as the origin of the show’s primary antagonist, Bob. Lynch is among the few directors to put such moral judgments so close to his artistic endeavors, firmly categorizing the atom bomb as unqualified evil, the source of yet more evil—in this case, a spectral creature who leaves a long trail of victims in his wake.

Most filmmakers, though, have been perfectly content with denial—diminishing the threat of nuclear holocaust by representing it as absurd, improbable, frivolous, or easily avoided should the appropriately skilled superhero or spy be on hand. Carl Sagan, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1983, found that the same tendency afflicted those in power as well: 

Most people, recognizing nuclear war as a grave and terrifying prospect, and nuclear policy as immersed in technical complexities, official secrecy and bureaucratic inertia, tend to practice what psychiatrists call denial: putting the agonizing problem out of our heads, since there seems nothing we can do about it. Even policymakers must feel this temptation from time to time. But for policymakers there is another concern: if it turns out that nuclear war could end our civilization or our species, such a finding might be considered a retroactive rebuke to those responsible, actively or passively, in the past or in the present, for the global nuclear arms race.

Still from The Day After (1983). | YouTube

Since 1945, an estimated one hundred twenty-five thousand nuclear weapons have been manufactured, but thanks to negotiations that spawned accords like the INF and START, there now exist a fraction of that number. However, as Sagan outlined, and as Richard Rhodes recapitulated last year in this magazine, the enhanced capability of current stockpiles means that far fewer are needed in order to cause cataclysmic damage. “These are the hammers of hell,” activist Daniel Berrigan SJ once said. “These are the hammers that will break the world to bits. These are the hammers that claim the end of the world.” The increasing instability of the current nuclear status quo adds even more emphasis to these words, particularly given the United States’ relentless prodding of nuclear tensions with Putin and China, Iran and North Korea.

Nuclear annihilation is, for the general public, an issue that remains abstract—divested of existential terror and imperativeness. 

And yet, nuclear annihilation is, for the general public, an issue that remains abstract—divested of existential terror and imperativeness. Berrigan and other members of the Plowshares Movement—an anti-nuclear activist group known for, among other things, trespassing on military grounds to damage weapons—were motivated by the idea that urgency must not be relegated to times of conflict, but enacted continuously in order to maintain peace. It is a sobering ethos, one that directly opposes the despair, nihilism, and defeat of Winter Light. Tomas, the priest, descends into resentment and self-hatred following the suicide of Jonas, the parishioner who came to him with fears of nuclear war. Tomas’s newfound atheism grants him license, he feels, to act with cruelty to others. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, in tandem with many of the plot and character elements of Bergman’s film, centers its inciting existential subject, climate disaster, as a more explicit catalyst.

Yet both Winter Light and First Reformed share a common conclusion, more by negative representation than outright duplication. Bergman instills haunting ambiguity in his priest’s closing actions as Tomas presides over an empty church service, together with his ex-lover, the organist, and faithful sexton; allegedly freed from the delusions of religion, Tomas still goes through the motions. Schrader’s priest Ernst is on the verge of detonating a bomb during his service in protest against an energy mogul who patronizes the church. Ernst is bitterly defeated—though his faith remains shakily intact. Laura Kane, writing in Commonweal about these two films, notes, “This doubt finds expression through art because there is no theology that can articulate with sufficient intimacy and nuance the sense of disillusionment these characters feel. It cannot be resolved, systematically, doctrinally, or otherwise. Narrative art, whether novels or movies, offers an honest depiction of the spiritual displacement of modernity, and gives voice to its intense loneliness.”

The lasting impression, instead, is that of a communal holding-on. “If only we could feel safe and dare show each other tenderness,” Marta says to Tomas. Both films turn on a forgoing of choice and agency, on the futility of individual effort in the face of the unfathomable. After all, First Reformed forces its audience to contend with a destruction that is all but assured, whereas Winter Light circles round a possibility of unknown time or circumstance. And both films depict a kind of truism: that to look at the death hurtling toward us is to invite hopelessness into our lives.

But the very fact of these films’ existence is its own kind of spiritual justification. Their inconclusive wrestling with unwieldy truths runs counter to the satisfaction demanded and supplied by any mainstream film that tackles mass annihilation. From decade to decade, as our “enemies” shift, and our desire to square blame for the immensity of what might occur inspires ever more belligerent reactions, the reliably benign, contained nature of cinematic nuclear destruction becomes more and more akin to a form of denialism, an incantation of forgetting by minimizing. The result of all this threatens to leave us much like Tomas: going through the motions, utterly ambivalent, with empty words gesturing at what should be done, but ultimately, no means to rouse ourselves to meaningful action.