By what right does the nuclear bomb stake its claim on the arts? To scientists engaged from 1939 on the developmental stages of the Manhattan Project it was a beautiful piece of physics. Es Devlin, innovative British theatre set designer, film-maker and co-author of the new digital art work I Saw the World End, puts it in another way: “It was a work of the imagination.”
Leo Szilard, exiled Hungarian scientist, formerly of Berlin, where he had worked with Albert Einstein, saw it “in a flash”, on a dismal morning in 1933 while at a traffic light on London’s Southampton Row. “If a neutron, fired at an atom, produces the release of two neutrons, each of which hits another atom”, and so on, he perceived, “a nuclear chain reaction would take place, releasing unimaginable amounts of energy.” But in a sense, HG Wells had beaten him to it 20 years earlier in his novel The World Set Freeforeseeing when “every scrap of solid matter . . . would become an available reservoir of concentrated force.”
I Saw the World End is a 10-minute film created by Devlin and her associate designer Machiko Weston that commemorates the 75th anniversary of nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, on August 6 and 9 respectively. Scheduled to take place outdoors in Piccadilly Circus, the first screening was moved to the more modest and indoor surroundings of an upper floor of the Imperial War Museum, out of respect for the suffering caused to the people of Lebanon by last week’s explosion in Beirut.
The museum commissioned the film and is hosting it on its website. The area it chose for the screening was coincidentally beneath the museum’s ancient dome, which resembles Hiroshima’s former industrial promotion hall, a building that survived the mid-air blast over the city to a miraculous extent and now serves as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
The film uses a split screen, representing, say the authors, the split atom, racial divisions and fractures between humans and the planet. Lockdown facilitated the project. Devlin and Weston, who is part Japanese, did not research the bombings’ impact on their cultures until split up themselves, in work location terms, by the pandemic. They made the film in two months.
Against a backdrop of apocalyptic images, Devlin and Weston, the latter in simultaneously translated Japanese, provide voiceover of viewpoints and reaction on both sides of the story; from scientists and politicians, for example, involved in the bomb’s development and the decision to use it, to the recollections of Japanese survivors of the bombings. A powerful effect is generated, not least, by the words of disillusioned physicist Robert Oppenheimer — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” — and a Hiroshima survivor who saw a “young mother running with a headless baby on her back”.
Born in 1971, Devlin came to the subject as a child. Her parents, who had met during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, gave her Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blowsa novel, ostensibly for children, about a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on Britain. It was, she says, “deeply shocking”. Weston was born in 1980 and says she and her parents didn’t discuss the nuclear issue, though the subject was still present, the bombings commemorated each year in Japan. Weston and Devlin had three quarters of a century to get to grips with in their work. But they had dealt with a sweeping span of history before, designing the set for the National Theatre/Neal Street production of The Lehman Trilogywhich covers more than 150 years of US economic, social and political history.
Devlin freely says the film is “political”. But what of the reasons given and widely accepted in the US and Britain at the time to justify the bomb? That without it American troops faced bitter fighting from one Pacific island to the next; what of the brutal treatment of British soldiers imprisoned in countries occupied by Japan? Was this viewpoint wrong? “Our generation is now distant enough to question it,” says Devlin. “That’s our role.”
Weston was humbled by the project. “I didn’t think I could do it,” she says. It proved not to be about who was “the bad guy or the good guy” but about showing different “perspectives”. That is a key word in the remit of the war museum, which has surged back into action following the coronavirus lockdown. Its “History of Bombs” by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei also went on show this month as part of the museum’s “Refugees” season.
“The bomb has been the central feature running through our lives,” says Toby Haggith, senior curator for the second world war and mid-20th century conflict. “Everything seems to go back to it. Just look at the Iraq war, Scud missiles and fears that Saddam Hussein had chemical and nuclear weapons.”
Overall, what does the film say? To use old expressions of the nuclear discussion, it is far nearer “Ban the Bomb” than the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Or its point could simply be taken as “views move on, and the debate continues”. One era’s self-evident truth becomes the next’s “God, did they really think like that?” Today’s debate on racism is highly relevant, says Devlin. Research from the Japanese end turned up the views of a young Harry Truman who, more than 30 years before he became the president that ordered the dropping of the bombs, wrote to his future wife that he hated “Chinese and Japs”.
The aim of the film appears to be not just to look at sins of the past but to consider how people in future generations might judge our views today. The film links to the words of the US psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, known for his research on causes and effects of wars and uncompromising thoughts on the environment. Lifton notes the “apocalyptic twins” of climate change and nuclear arms that can “destroy the human species”.
Not all will agree. Yet few could doubt the wisdom of Yasujiro Tanaka, one Nagasaki survivor. All superfluous pretensions are stripped away by what he has witnessed, and his only desire, he says, “is to live a full life”.