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and Eric Nadler

The modern Prometheus of Stealing the Fire: The Secret Story of Iraq and the Bomb is Karl-Heinz Schaab, an unprepossessing 68-year-old German machinist who sold centrifuge technology to Iraq, thus potentially enabling Saddam Hussein to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Schaab seems a phlegmatic guy, and documentarians John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler match his demeanor: Stealing the Fire is as cool as its vaguely ominous industrial-calypso score, composed by former Hugo Largo violinist Hahn Rowe. The filmmakers (as well as German prosecutors) follow Schaab to the Canary Islands and Brazil, then finally back to Germany, where he is to stand trial for treason. Along the way, Friedman and Nadler locate plenty of people who note that Schaab’s brand of treason is little more than business as usual in Germany, whose motto could be—as one German journalist puts it—”export uber alles.” The film also reaches to Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, and the University of Virginia (where Schaab spent two years, and found American food and architecture deplorable). Then it travels back in time to reveal that Degussa, the German company that developed the centrifuge, was implicated in the making of Zyklon B, the poison used in Nazi gas chambers, as well as in smelting precious metals seized from Jews—including gold torn from the mouths of death-camp victims. This information is apparently meant to shock, but it’s hardly a secret that many German (and other) corporations profited by supplying the Nazi war and genocide machines. The filmmakers essentially acknowledge that Schaab is a footnote to the history of nuclear proliferation, but they don’t quite use their account of his activities to execute a comprehensive view of the illegal weapons-technology trade. That makes Stealing the Fire a fine but narrow piece of reporting, unlikely to interest people without a specialized interest in its subject. —Mark Jenkins