by Maikel Aarts in DVD Beaver , 2006
It was the famous film critic and theoretician André Bazin who asked the question ‘What is cinema?’ in his legendary essays of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The answer to that question is something a lot of filmmakers and theoreticians have written and speculated about. Eisenstein, Brakhage, Godard, Deren: they have all tried to formulate what it exactly is that constitutes the medium film. Gustav Deutsch examines exactly the same thing in his film cycle Film ist.. His ‘answer’: film is. Period. It exists and can take on many forms and meanings. His film is not so much of an answer to the question what film is, but more several examples of the various shapes it can take on.

Deutsch structures his film cycle around various chapters, twelve so far. Those chapters have titles such as ‘Movement and Time’, ‘Light and Darkness’, ‘A Mirror’, ‘Magic’, ‘Emotions and Passion’ and so on. All of them give an example of what film can be. Deutsch made it very clear that this film can never have a definitive form, simply because there is no definitive definition of what film is. He started to work on this film in 1996, when he made the first six chapters. From 1999 to 2002, he worked on the subsequent six chapters, 7-12. So far, these 12 chapters constitute the whole of Film ist. but it’s very likely there will be more chapters in the future.

Deutsch uses only existing film footage to illustrate his points. He mined the archives of several film institutes and came up with footage that has largely been neglected the last 100 years. In his first six chapters, Deutsch almost exclusively uses scientific and pedagogic films. These films are never looked upon a artistic cinema, because of their often sterile and boring content, but Deutsch demonstrates that there is a lot of beauty to be found in these films. Chapters 7-12 focus on fiction films from the silent era.

One of the principles Deutsch uses to great effect is the so-called ‘Kuleshov effect’. This technique assumes that separate images have no meaning by themselves and that the meaning of film only originates when separate images are edited together. Deutsch plays with this principle during the whole film: he edits shots from several completely different films together as if they were one single film, which results in moments that are often funny and original. To give an example: an image of an ostrich running to the right is followed by an image of a leopard walking to the left. Then Deutsch rewinds the footage of the ostrich, as to create the impression that the ostrich is running away from the leopard, while in fact they’re just two unrelated images taken from two different films. The inclusion of a specially composed electronic soundtrack (reference points: Fennesz, Otomo Yoshihide) gives the images yet another dimension.

Film ist. is a collage work in the truest sense of the word. Deutsch combines tons of archaic film material and the result is exhilarating, interesting, funny and often extremely beautiful. Deutsch never set out to make a theoretical film and he succeeded admirably. Such a project could have easily ended in a boring and humorless film, but Film ist. is the exact opposite. People with no interest in experimental cinema should approach this film with caution of course, but everyone with even the slightest interest in avant-garde film should have seen this film at least once in their lives.

This DVD does not contain the complete cycle of Film ist. Instead, Deutsch has put together a special compilation of excerpts from the 12 chapters of Film ist. for this DVD. Because of the eclectic nature of the film footage used in this film and the fact that many of the images have been manipulated, it is hard to say anything about the picture quality. No efforts have been made to restore the images, simply because it’s beside the point. I’ve no idea how this film is supposed to look like, but given the fact that Gustav Deutsch collaborated closely on this DVD, one has to assume this is how the film should look like. The electronic soundtrack comes through clearly. The DVD comes with a 10 minute documentary about Gustav Deutsch and a DVD installation of Film ist. Also included is a bilingual (German and English) booklet, which includes comments by Gustav Deutsch on this DVD and a brilliant essay by noted film historian Tom Gunning. This DVD does not come cheap, but for lovers of avant-garde cinema it comes highly recommended.
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