It is, in a word, glorious.... what I feel is the inherent power and mystery of such material, the arrangement of these images and sounds into a definition of cinema constitutes one of the greatest pedagogic films I have seen.... my main reaction is to have my socks knocked off.
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 Painlève, 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. Anthony Nield, DVD Times, 12.01.2006
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. Maikel Aarts in DVD Beaver , 2006