by Anthony Nield in DVD Times , 12.01.2006
Film ist. has been dubbed by its maker Gustav Deutsch as a work in progress, an on-going project of which this DVD should be considered just one incarnation. Its aim is to dissect and define cinema by breaking it down and manipulating its component parts. To date Deutsch has done so by trawling through the archives, finding obscure and forgotten snippets of film and rendering them as a truly unique experience. The project so far extends to twelve parts or chapters, the first six having been released as a 60-minute work in 1998, the second in 2002 in 93-minute form. Here however, we find a 77-minute “best of”, so to speak, compiled by Deutsch himself, with all twelve parts included albeit in truncated form.

Not that this should dissuade the potential buyer. In spite of the edits Deutsch’s intentions remain clear and Film ist. still amounts to a terrific achievement. Moreover, the disc allows us to watch his efforts as a single entity rather than two, though the option is also there to approach the separate parts in whichever order we see fit. That said, the whole experience is the way to go for ultimately Film ist. is much more than the sum of its parts.

What’s most remarkable about all this is the fact that the source material doesn’t appear to be the most promising. The first half all the more so with its reconfigurations of straight-faced science documentaries, whilst the second opts for cinema’s first thirty years and its early attempts at the narrative form. Yet Deutsch has a genuine eye for the surprising meaning that every single excerpt is in possession of either a great beauty or some other remarkable strength. Furthermore, he proves a terrific filmmaker in his own right, his editing work transforming these various bits and pieces into a remarkable tapestry of unexpected associations and meanings. Indeed, there’s a great deal of work to be done on our part as we decipher his mock narratives and draw everything together. The second chapter, for example, entitled ‘Light and Darkness’ reassembles shots of moons, eyeballs and lightning into some kind of avant-garde horror film, and one superbly augmented by the director’s minimalist electronic score. And yet, such associations are likely to be in the eye of the beholder; each viewing reveals new meanings and new connections, one time a sequence can be shocking, the next it’s dryly comic.

In this respect Film ist. could be read as a call to arms from Deutsch. Over its 77 minutes he teaches us that there is no such thing as a banal image, merely a case of us needing to recognise the context (hence the chapter divisions). Film is, as he so rightly puts it, footage of crash test dummies or the bizarre sight of various boffins messing around with their perception. As such his efforts, much like Bill Morrison’s, become a plea to preserve this stuff and not forget (or, more damagingly, ignore) about it. Especially with regards to the science documentary footage we leave the film with a sense that we’ve been ignoring a whole genre and instead just picking out the accepted highpoints: the natural history films of Jean Painlčve, say, or perhaps those titles which Amos Vogel used to program as part of Cinema 16. Indeed, Film ist. is a film with which to open our eyes and to renew our faith in cinema. Anytime you become bored, tired or repeatedly disappointed by what it has to offer, this is exactly the piece to put on. Through the simplest of things it manages to reconfirm just how magical the moving image can be.

The Disc

Another Region 0 PAL release from Austrian label Index, Film ist. once again finds the small-scale outfit handing out a fine presentation. Given the source material, the film of course comes with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and it’s preserved here alongside the DD2.0 soundtrack. (The film contains brief snatches of dialogue on two occasions, but is otherwise accompanied solely by Deutsch’s scoring.) Of course, the source material also makes it difficult to ascertain the qualities of the film’s transfer, but then there’s nothing that seems untoward. The clarity is there when and where you would expect and the same goes for the contrast. Moreover, Deutsch himself supervised in the production and as such we can safely that the presentation – both visually and aurally – was as he intended.

Interesting, this is one of the rare Index titles to contain special features beyond the usual (and typically excellent) 20-page booklet containing bilingual notes, essays and a filmography in both German and English. Of these additional pieces it is the 9-minute ‘Über. Gustav Deutsch’ featurette which proves the more rewarding. An interview with the filmmaker it allows him to discuss his major themes as well as his twin methods of “seeking and finding” and as such serves as a fine introduction. (Note that the interview is in German but comes with English subtitles.) Also present is a glimpse at how Film ist. has played in galleries as a multi-panel, enveloping DVD installation.
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