In 1986, the fire at the Chernobyl power plant in the then-Soviet Union left surrounding areas, including worker-ville Pripyat, uninhabitable. Twelve years later, a cheery old couple tells documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter that they “got used to” the radiation, so they stayed put, happily raising pigs and picking mushrooms. Black-and-white footage of endless expanses of concrete overgrown with resilient vegetation punctuates Pripyat’s encounters with tenacious natives and new workers at the, yes, reopened plant. The incidental portraits bespeak a deep pathos that moves between a proud attachment to the land (and to habit) and a fatalism that’s as potent as the radiation. One scientist, who has worked there since before the accident, remains devastated that her town was fossilized before her; friends won’t take her by the old apartment block anymore because she takes days to get over the sight of it. Stillness marks the proceedings, not only physically but ideologically: some lingering idealism seems to drive the super-earnest new plant manager to work virtually without pay, and in this abandoned hinterland, despite all the officials, one could forget that communism, too, had a meltdown. Geyrhalter presents this living museum to us with stark, squared-off frontal compositions but also plunges us in, with sudden cuts to tracking shots through the plant. Ultimately, the futility of waiting out the radiation’s interminable rate of decay can’t help but find a certain pitch-black humor: the job of the “head of the vehicle depot” is to guard a fleet of ghostly contaminated trucks and giant abandoned helicopters awaiting burial. Stalker fans can tune in to the Sundance Channel on September 7 and 19 to see the contaminated area the locals actually refer to as “The Zone.”
Nicolas Rapoldis the editor-in-chief of Film Comment and hosts The Film Comment Podcast.