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Pictures at the Hotel Armageddon


Published: January 11, 2004

In the final minutes of the movie "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," with a nuclear conflagration on the horizon, the only person in the Pentagon's war room who remains upbeat about the prospect of mass annihilation is Strangelove himself. Doing slide-rule calculations in his wheelchair, this proud father of the Doomsday Machine assures the president and his generals that thousands of Americans can ride out Armageddon inside the country's deeper mine shafts.

"Of course," Strangelove, the not-so-ex-Nazi, says brightly, "it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition." The men in the room listen raptly to his proposal for a "ratio of 10 females to each male." As survivors, the madman tells them, they should feel no guilt about the tens of millions incinerated above ground but instead enjoy their new subterranean lives in "a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead."

The 25 photographs by Andreas Magdanz at the Janet Borden Gallery in SoHo, from Saturday through Feb. 21, are like a glimpse of Strangelove's demented vision of a nuclear sanctuary translated into historical truth. One set of plans for a postnuclear-war world, it turns out, were almost as fantastic — and banal — as those in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satire. The Dienstelle Marienthal (or Marienthal Office) is among the most ambitious but least-known monuments to "thinking the unthinkable" ever conceived. This vast underground tunnel complex, built from 1960 to 1972 outside Bonn, was once so secret that to acknowledge its existence could bring charges of treason in West Germany.

Designed to house 3,000 of that government's essential personnel in case of nuclear attack, it represented one of the most exclusive fraternities in the world. (Membership in the American version, under the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia during President Dwight D. Eisenhower's tenure, was even more restricted. It accommodated only 1,000 people. After the 535 members of Congress and their top aides were assigned spaces, little room was left for anyone else hoping to survive.)

The Germans, however, built on a grander scale. The mountain caverns in the Ahr Valley near Marienthal had been hollowed as a railroad tunnel before World War I. Invading French troops dynamited passages, and the place was abandoned until World War II, when the Nazi military discovered that the cathedral-like spaces, beneath 350 feet of slate, were ideal for assembling V-1 and V-2 rockets beyond the reach of Allied bombs. After joining NATO in 1955, West Germany began to plan to use the site in case of a nuclear war, expanding and upgrading it so that a community could live deep underground, in theory, for at least a month.

There are 25,000 doors in the bunker complex at Marienthal, only 38 of which open to the world outside. Among the hundreds of rooms where the sun never shone are 897 offices and conference areas and 936 sleeping cubicles. Canteens, showers, medical areas, a printing shop, a hair salon, a television studio and — most touchingly — a post office were provided for the inhabitants, along with two large bays for bicycles, the chief form of transportation around the nearly 12 miles of galleries and tunnels.

Mr. Magdanz, a 40-year-old German based in Aachen, began the project in 1998 after reading a newspaper item about the structure. His request to photograph it was grudgingly honored by the Interior Ministry, which granted him a three-day permit. Persistence led to a seven-month extension. He was the first person authorized to photograph there, although he had access to only the three sectors in the east half of the complex. (There were five sectors in all, linked but different.)

His photographic tour of the forbidden city — he shot more than 1,000 negatives in both black and white and color with a large-format camera, and also made a videotape — is not comforting. The government code name for the complex was typically euphemistic: Rosengarten (or Rose Garden). Monotony, regimentation and claustrophobic dread are the outstanding qualities found in the pictures. The oppressive spotlessness of Marienthal is matched by a complete lack of privacy. Only the West German president rated his own bathroom and, in an incongruous visual note, also had a suite with chairs and sofas upholstered in hot pink.

The weight of the mountain can be felt throughout the photographs. With a precise and clinical eye, Mr. Magdanz shows the 25-ton doors, the miles of cable and the air ducts that connected the underground denizens, through a series of filters, with the upper atmosphere. The décor is spare, the furniture uniformly modern. There are no gymnasiums or libraries. Fluorescent light and gray airlessness are pervasive.

The saddest image may be a pair of chairs and a table in front of a wall in a conference room. On the wall is a map with a label that reads, "The World," a reminder of everything that, had nuclear war broken out, the people here would be giving up by burrowing into this new, shrunken but uncontaminated world.

The redeeming feature of Marienthal is that those who could retreat quickly enough would be alive. It was a refuge as well as a feat of German engineering. A defensive structure, it was planned not to kill but to protect a select group from the insanity of atomic weapons. And unlike other notorious Germans who hoped to survive a war from inside bunkers, these political leaders would, presumably, not have started it.

The most distinguishing feature of Marienthal, apart from the lingering paranoia, is the naïveté behind its creation. In the United States, architects of cold war thinking — like Herman Kahn, a brilliant strategist at the RAND Corporation (and a model for Strangelove), and the Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara — dared to sketch the outlines of a postnuclear-war world. They offered rational responses to various worst-case scenarios, even though it seems clear that no amount of planning would help in the face of unprecedented national panic. One need only imagine the traffic on the roads after a 50-megaton weapon hit Washington or Bonn to know that a quorum of government leaders would not likely arrive at these shelters alive.

The immaculate order of the empty rooms in Marienthal seems to be inversely proportional to the mayhem that would be taking place above ground in the event of a nuclear strike. Suppressed grief and emotional denial can be read into the pictures. The German and American evacuation plans take for granted that political leaders would abandon fathers, mothers, spouses and children to their fates. But would such callous behavior really be the case, and at what psychic price? Who would want to rule what was left from Hades?

The response from many viewers to these pictures will be nervous laughter. Stretched across the cover of Mr. Magdanz's self-published book on the project is a cartoon of a B-52, the same type of rogue bomber, piloted by Maj. T. J. (King) Kong of the Air Force, that triggered the Doomsday Machine and the end of the world in "Dr. Strangelove."

The amount of money spent on Marienthal — more than three billion marks (roughly $1.4 billion) — is not funny, though. The question of how we are to treat our wildly expensive cold war relics is only now coming into focus. The United States government has decided to reveal its secret hideout and offers paid tours of the Greenbrier bunkers. The fees help defray the cost of maintaining an atomic-age hotel built for 1,000.

The Germans have been typically quieter and more conflicted about their past. Proposals to convert Marienthal and reopen it as a techno-disco, a Bunker Wonderland amusement park and youth hostel or a mushroom farm went nowhere. A decision was finally reached in 2000 to dismantle the complex, at a an estimated cost of 100 million Euros ($120 million). In the end the tunnels will be flooded, and Mr. Magdanz's photographs may soon be the most lasting record of its existence.

No doubt there are secret bunker complexes being built or considered here and elsewhere in case of a terrorist dirty bomb. But whether they will offer any more lasting assurance than the Dienstelle Marienthal is a question worth asking.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

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