Stealing the Fire (2002)

Mike Ward

What is the relevance of individual agency in such vast systems as the Nazi war machine or the post-war global arms trade?"

Stealing the Fire

Director: Eric Nadler
Display Artist: John S. Friedman, Eric Nadler
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Nation Institute
Cast: as themselves): Karl-Heinz Schaab, Michael Rietz, Dr. Carl von Weizsacker
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-10-22 (Limited release)

"A human being always wants to explain," Michael Rietz says, "why are there wars?"

At first blush, one suspects that Rietz should know perfectly well why there are wars, since he aided a warmaking regime by defending Karl-Heinz Schaab, a German traitor on trial for selling nuclear technology to the Iraqi government. To answer his own question, surely Rietz need only examine his client's motives for committing such a reprehensible act and his own for defending it.

Unfortunately, it's not quite so simple. Questions about the reasons for war -- which were first asked, undoubtedly, in concert with the first war, an episode lost in prehistory -- have become more complex at the same time that they have become urgent. Ever since the efficiencies of the industrial revolution were pressed into the service of the globe's most powerful war machines, many have seen the ever-growing refinements of warfare as leading, inevitably, to the end of civilization. H.G. Wells saw it as early as 1914. In his little-known novel The Last War: A World Set Free he predicted that the atomic bomb would some day bring a conflagration that would claim organized society among its casualties. Life afterward would not be worth living.

For some reason, this hasn't made war rare or brought about the enduring peace many scientists and humanists expected after the devastation of World War II. John Friedman and Eric Nadler's Stealing the Fire, a video documentary using Schaab's trial as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade, puzzles frankly over why warfare has endured despite its dire consequences. Stealing the Fire is a modest film, likely to be lost in the parade of jingoistic blockbusters issuing from Hollywood with the frequency and uniformity of one-ton bombs. But the movie makes an urgent point: our collective best hope is not to worship wars but to eradicate them by discovering why they are fought, and the sooner the better.

While mainstream media, the press, and the government are collaborating to create a simplistic fantasy of good vs. evil in America's New World Order, a contrary, terrifying global reality is quietly taking shape, one in which uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation, combined with growing inequity in the distribution of the world's resources, will lead to wars without clear moral purpose.

Stealing the Fire takes an appropriately roundabout course to reach this conclusion. Schaab's trial for treason -- which led to an astonishingly lenient 100,000 deutsche-mark fine and 5 years' probation -- is the frame for the film, which ranges wildly over Schaab's history. But Rietz's question -- "why are there wars?" -- is of particular interest. It would be easy to blame Schaab and Rietz for the predicament that now supposedly confronts the free world: a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. But Rietz claims, rightly, that this would be a gross oversimplification. He replaces it with another: Schaab, who sold the Iraqis sophisticated centrifuge technology to refine weapons-grade uranium, is "50% victim and 50% criminal."

To understand why wars are fought, it helps to understand the system that victimized Schaab, the system that makes criminality of the sort he practiced so lucrative. His trial is shown to be a waste of time, and the film concludes that if Western leaders seek peace as they claim to, they will eventually desist from their misguided strategy of ferreting out and prosecuting corrupt individuals, or bombing them (and everyone around them) into oblivion one after the other. Instead, the industrial complex that sustains and rewards this corruption must be examined and reformed. Given the U.S. government's current policies, this won't happen anytime soon.

The trade in war materials -- convoluted, interconnected, plagued with shifting alliances and ethical lapses -- is represented here mostly through the German firm Degussa, and Leybold, a Degussa subsidiary. Though little known in the United States, Degussa contributed to the industrial might of the Nazi regime by helping to manufacture Zyklon-B, by processing metals taken from concentration camp victims, and by aiding in the Third Reich's atomic program. This story is told partly in the testimony of Erna Spiewack, who was a lab technician for Degussa in 1941. She puzzled in horror over the bloodstained dental fillings that were shipped to Degussa to be smelted and refined. But, she says, "I was 18 at the time and didn't really reflect where they had come from." And one wonders: as a single teenage girl in history's most brutal military regime, what could she have done had she known?

This type of question comes up fairly often. What is the relevance of individual agency in such vast systems as the Nazi war machine or the post-war global arms trade? Time and again, individuals can easily contribute to these systems but rarely can individuals oppose them.

A particular individual contribution to Degussa's war effort, that of Gernot Zippe (known as the "father of the centrifuge"), was of great interest to the militaries of several industrialized nations. After the war was over, the Russians captured Zippe to help them develop the atomic bomb. Shortly following his return to Germany in 1956, Zippe was snapped up by the CIA to work on U.S. centrifuge technology. Subsequently, through a convoluted trail involving meetings of nuclear scientists in Amsterdam, Austrian bank accounts, and contacts with Iraqi and Egyptian diplomats, a variant of the sophisticated uranium centrifuge technology Zippe fathered turned up in an Iraqi weapons site in 1996.

The course by which Degussa's centrifuge work ended up in Iraqi hands is too complicated to recount in this review, or even to grasp fully on a single viewing of Stealing the Fire. This is part of the point. In deciphering grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations, only one thing can be known for sure: weapons are of great value.

Everything else -- Degussa's allegiances, Iraq's motives, Karl-Heinz Schaab's affiliations -- trails off into murk and confusion under scrutiny. Thus Degussa is spared the defendant's chair at Nuremberg because of the firm's association with American companies such as the DuPont Corporation, and NASA sells rocket technology, much of it lifted from the Nazis after World War II, to the Egyptian government in the 1960s, only to see the rockets used against Israel in the Middle East wars of 1967 and '73. NASA's and Degussa's technologies are later combined for nuclear missile plans found in Iraqi possession following the Persian Gulf War. All of this leads Neir Amit, a former head of Israeli intelligence, to call the targeting of civilians in Tel Aviv by Egyptian and Iraqi missiles a "continuation of the Holocaust." He has a point.

Following this disturbing train of thought, Rietz says that the Scud-B technology Iraq used in the Gulf War is "90% German," and culpability for Iraq's success in procuring atomic bomb precursor technologies is "60-70% German." The rest of the blame can be placed on the Americans, the Russians, and other participants in the grotesque weapons trade. But all this comes with a bit of a shrug. What can these numbers possibly mean when the borders between the nations involved are continually being compromised, and when the individual participants -- Zippe, Spiewack, Schaab, and many others -- are acting not out of national interest so much as motives of personal gain, advancement of scientific knowledge, or youthful naïvete?

One would like to imagine that a single expression of outrage anywhere along the line, from Erma Spiewack, Zippe, Schaab, the "intelligence" people in the CIA, or the jurists at Nuremberg, would have halted the free and lucrative trade in the deadliest weapon ever invented -- that individual resistance would have averted this imminent global proliferation of nuclear technology. But of course, this isn't likely. Institutional problems can be neither attributed to nations nor solved by individuals. They can only be addressed through fiercely collective intellectual work and ethical contemplation. The price for not solving them, however, will be paid by individuals, one person to the next, as it always has.

Stealing the Fire conveys the price of war for U.S. audiences by intercutting footage of the World Trade Center collapse with the testimony of a civilian who suffered under the state of war in Tel Aviv. "We've only had the tiniest taste" of these weapons' destructive power, she says. "It will destroy you, the same way it destroys everyone else." Either we collectively learn to manage the global industrial weapons network, no matter its intricacies, or we will eventually learn, as individuals, a lesson of brute simplicity: what these weapons do.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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