In 2012, Austrian film director Michael Haneke criticized Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust drama, “Schindler’s List,” for the way it manipulates its audience. “The idea, the mere idea of trying to draw and create suspense out of the question of whether gas or water is going to come out of the showerhead to me is unspeakable,” Haneke said. His words echoed an oft-cited 1973 interview with François Truffaut, in which the French director responded to the observation that there is little killing in his films. “Some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war film,” Truffaut said. “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” 

Two hours into Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic “Oppenheimer,” J. Robert Oppenheimer makes a triumphant speech to those who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The frame begins to shake, and among the cheering crowd a girl’s scream is heard, a woman’s face peels off, and Oppenheimer puts his foot through an ashen corpse. Nolan creates the pretense of abstraction by not showing the actual bombings, but his message is still explicit. The creation of nuclear weapons was, if we cannot work it out for ourselves, a bad thing. 


For art to be responsible it must allow its audience to, in Haneke’s words, “remain independent and free of manipulation.” In “Oppenheimer,” Nolan questions the intelligence of the audience, assuming that they are too stupid to draw moral conclusions without the film stating them directly. It reduces the creation of the atomic bomb into a tale of good guys and bad guys, hanging moralistic signposts around its characters’ necks.

John Adams’s 2005 opera “Doctor Atomic” also tells the story of the Manhattan Project. The work stands in counterpoint to “Oppenheimer” by eschewing the visual pleasures of cinema, its abstraction allowing audiences to come to their own conclusions. Is musical drama better suited than film to represent tragedy without manipulating its audience? 

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The sense of visual pleasure garnered through suspense that Haneke identifies in the gas chamber sequence of “Schindler’s List” is most explicit in “Oppenheimer” during the Trinity test countdown. The central third of the film, sandwiched between Oppenheimer’s scientific coming-of-age and later trials, tells the story of Los Alamos with the pace and editing of a blockbuster trailer. It packs the night of the detonation into about eight minutes as its spectacular second act finale. The sequence is also the apotheosis of Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson’s score, which ebbs and flows ceaselessly throughout “Oppenheimer.” A student of the Hans Zimmer, bigger-is-better school of music, Göransson is Nolan’s key manipulator in the project. Several times we hear an intensely dissonant downward squeal in the strings identical to that used by Lars Johan Werle to open Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966). The throbbing tension crescendoing throughout, having begun at fortissimo and only getting louder, couples intense expressionism with minimalist ostinati toward a moment of total silence in which the blast fills the IMAX frame. The scene would not be out of place in a Marvel picture.

“Doctor Atomic” uses its own three-hour runtime to focus solely on the Trinity test. The detonation sequence itself is abstracted as far as Adams will dare, bending time itself to drag out five minutes to almost 15. The singing disappears and the orchestral rhythms fall out of joint as they crawl towards a form of white noise supposed to evoke the radiation in the air. Adams took inspiration from John Hershey’s investigation, Hiroshima, whose first chapter is titled “A Noiseless Flash.” As the music vanishes, words quoted by Hershey of a Japanese woman are left in the air: she asks for water. The moment gestures towards future events with a profound and moving subtlety, at which point the absence of music is only fitting, for fear of turning this devastating moment into something beautiful.

Where “Oppenheimer” is the story of an American Prometheus, one who has brought fire to the Earth, “Doctor Atomic” conceptualized its protagonist as an American Faust, one who has exchanged his soul for knowledge. The importance of Oppenheimer’s soul to Adams is expressed through settings of poetry and literature valued by the scientist, including Charles Baudelaire and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. “Holy Sonnet XIV” is believed to have been the source for the test name Trinity, from its expression of a “three-person’d God,” and it becomes Oppenheimer’s pivotal aria “Batter My Heart” at the conclusion of Act I. Each stanza is punctuated by swirling woodwinds, brass crescendi, and timpani pounding in his head. By contrast, Nolan seems only familiar with one quotation from Oppenheimer’s library, one that thuds with banality through overexposure—the words of the Hindu god Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (Nolan puts the words in the mouth of Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock during an unintentionally hilarious sex scene; Sellars leaves them out).

The brooding orchestra which permeates “Batter My Heart”—and indeed the rest of “Doctor Atomic”—knows something which Oppenheimer himself could only fear at that time: the real-world use of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima is only mentioned by name once in the libretto, as a potential target during a staff meeting in the first scene—accompanied by a foreboding chord in the strings, trombones, and horns not heard again until the end. It is as suggestive as Adams is willing to be for fear of holding the audience’s hands too obviously. It is possible to tell without showing, and without the audience knowing that they are being told what to think.

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Adams sets an abstract tone for his opera right at the start. The musique concrète “overture” collides the sounds of industrial equipment, airplanes, and voices before culminating in the 1946 popular song “The Things We Did Last Summer,” by Jo Stafford: “How could a love that seemed so right go wrong? / The things we did last summer / I’ll remember all winter long.” The music looks back to Edgard Varèse, whose work “Ionisation” was played by physicists at Los Alamos, and whose music drew inspiration from physics itself. Much of the libretto of “Doctor Atomic” is drawn from scientific reports, including an ethereal chorus singing “We surround the plutonium core…” shortly after the overture. Adams grounds the opera in the actual work of the Manhattan Project. This is not a human story alone.

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The tension between manipulation and abstraction animates other works that thematize the dropping of the atomic bomb. The eighth part of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” (2017) includes a recreation of the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. There is a countdown, in real time, from ten, a flash, and then Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1961 “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” plays over the image of a mushroom cloud, and abstract images designed to convey the spread of radiation not only across New Mexico, but across the universe. The coupling of such precise imagery with Penderecki’s music detracts from the work’s power. Originally titled “8’37’’” after its approximate runtime, the sonorism of the piece, with its 52 strings scratching against each other through glissandi at indeterminate pitch, creates a wall of deeply unsettling sound. Penderecki only dedicated the “Threnody” to Hiroshima after hearing a live performance of the piece, and even his decision to rename the work potentially undermines the abstract horror of the music by evoking the specificity of the atomic bomb in the listener, as Lynch did yet more clearly.

Other works about the nuclear bombings which ended the War in the Pacific derive their power from detachment. In 1958, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke wrote the oratorio “Nagasaki,” which sets texts by Japanese poets Eisaku Yoneda and Tōson Shimazaki along with Russian poet Anatoly Sofronov. The Fifth Symphony by Japanese composer Masao Ohki, written in 1953, is subtitled “Hiroshima” and draws inspiration from the “Hiroshima Panels” by artists Iri and Toshi Maruki. Both Schnittke and Ohki used Japanese sources to evoke the sonic effect of the attack on the victims, Schnittke through a screaming chorus and Ohki through high-pitched wails in the strings and woodwinds over the “Boundless Desert With Skulls.”

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And such questions remain in art that deal with tragedies more recent than the dropping of the atomic bomb. For her final opera “Innocence” (2018), the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s subject was a shooting at an international school in Helsinki. It is a subject shown in films including Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” (2003) and Paul Greengrass’s “22 July” (2018), always with the issue of creating narrative tension around the shooter and their gun. “Innocence” uses nine languages, speech, and Finno-Ugric folk music to transcend the specificity of time and place, leaving it unclear whether the characters are speaking to each other or themselves. Saariaho notes that while child actors might be used to represent the older characters reflecting on their memories of the shooting, “in no way should the Shooter be represented on stage.”

In his staging of “Innocence,” premiering at Aix-en-Provence in 2021, director Simon Stone seemed to have ignored this instruction, at one point revealing a body of the Shooter, and showing the bloodshed. It detracts from the elegance of Saariaho’s music in which that violence is only present as memory; it is presented as something done to the minds of not only of her characters, but also to whole communities and nations. Saariaho confronts the responsibility that comes with the artistic depiction of evil, and attempts to leave the audience independent in their associations and judgements. It is a lesson that Hollywood directors like Christopher Nolan should listen to. ¶

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… is a film and culture critic for publications including Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, The Guardian, and BBC Culture.