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The day Luxembourg was wiped off the map
film review

The day Luxembourg was wiped off the map

3 min. 07.05.2021
“An Zéro” is an overblown picture – unsatisfactory both as a documentary and as drama
White smoke is a good sign, not just in Rome
White smoke is a good sign, not just in Rome
Photo credit: Guy Jallay

(The name of co-director Myriam Tonelotto was corrected in the one-but-final paragraph.)

By Emma Pirnay

What would happen if the Cattenom nuclear plant would eradicate Luxembourg one day – including its people and culture? Julien Becker’s An Zéro (Year Zero) poses this controversial question. But his widely advertised docu-drama provides no satisfactory answers.

The 80-minute film opens ominously, providing a short-lived moment of calm before disaster hits. A cloud of grey smoke rises from Cattenom, situated in France just across from the Luxembourg border. The fear that the plant would explode has been in the back of the minds of much of Luxembourg’s population ever since it opened in 1986. The film provides some sobering facts. 

At just 20 kilometres away from Cattenom, Luxembourg City is the closest to a nuclear power plant of all European capitals. A radioactive cloud blowing in from the south west – the prevailing wind – would devastate two-thirds of the country. “The question is not whether this will happen, but when it will happen,” the poster states. Hyperbole, one would hope.

When the reactor starts overheating in the film – which explicitly says it takes place in a fictional world even if all references unmistakably show it is not – Luxembourg has no time to prepare. A whistleblower retiree (Denis Jousselin) at the reactor and his still active colleague first mention the risk of a blow-up on social media, fearing an official statement may take too long. 

The message spreads like wildfire, first on people’s phones, then with sirens blaring through the city. A flurry of panic emerges in the Place d’Armes – from where lawyer Hervé (Luc Schiltz) and his daughter attempt to flee the scene. Only two journalists Emma (Sophie Mousel) and Nico (Joël Delsaut) head in the opposite direction – straight towards Cattenom, to cover the accident. 

It is at these moments that the film is at its most poignant. We see, for example, how journalist Nico suffers from radiation poisoning, the Kniddelen Emma’s grandmother makes three years later, and the stress Hervé and his wife (Sonia Fischer) undergo when they leave the city in a hurry to a refugee camp.

But any chance of getting carried away is efficiently eliminated by the film’s hybrid character. It regularly transforms into a documentary, cutting into unexciting comments from people such as Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg and Claude Turmes, also a Green politician. 

They are, undoubtedly, discussing serious issues. A nuclear catastrophe would have profound consequences for a country the size of Luxembourg: politicians in exile, an entire language wiped out, survivors in camps in Belgium and Germany. Much of the film touches on whether France has a moral duty to to prevent wiping one of its neighbours off the map. The viewer meanwhile disappears in the crevasse between drama and documentary.

When smoke from a nuclear reactor overheats, it turns from grey to black, or so the film tells us. Similarly, in Julien Becker’s vision, a nuclear disaster knows no grey tones it is black and white. It comes as no surprise then that the film was made with two different ideas in mind. Co-director Myriam Tonelotto distanced herself from it and has uploaded the 20 minutes broadcaster Arte cut out, under the title “Comment notre film a disparu” (“How our film disappeared”). She had wanted more nuance, and more information, calling the final result “catastrophiste et bête” (paranoid and stupid) – and too anti-nuclear. 

Becker wants to immerse his viewer, even launching an app to recreate the media frenzy his film shows. As these two visions clash, the result is an overblown picture that fails to be either a satisfactory documentary or a drama.

"An Zero" can be viewed online until 19 July.

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