For the last 25 years, Gustav Deutsch has been one of the most prominent artists in an Austrian moving image scene characterized by an exploration of the physical properties of film, and an interest in recontextualising a century of footage. His best-known work remains his 180-minute epic Film Ist (Film Is…), parts 1-6 of which were completed in 1998, parts 7-12 in 2002. Composed entirely from archival material and divided into themes such as ‘Magic’ and ‘Movement and Time’, it is a potted history and wry commentary on the evolution of cinema’s visual language, with familiar tropes (melodramatic heroines swooning at their male lovers, for example, or the white filmmaker’s gaze at an exoticized colonial subject) reiterated to the point of absurdity. Spanning from the 1890s to the 1930s, when sound became ubiquitous in cinema, the film positions itself between documentary and the avant-garde. Deutsch’s rigorous editing and use of music by Austrian experimental composers such as Fennesz and Burkhard Stangl set Film Ist apart from conventional works about the provenance of film, and even Jean-Luc Godard’s oblique Histoire(s) du cinema (Histories of Cinema, 1988-98), which retained voice-over as a tool of audience instruction.
Last month, Index – the DVD wing of Sixpack, co-founded by Peter Tscherkassky to distribute films by Austrian (and other central European) artists – released several of Deutsch’s less well-known works as Not Home: Picturing the Foreign, in order to chart the development of his signature style and display his talents as a cinematographer and archivist. The collection places several of his earliest 16mm works alongside the 31 ‘pocket films’ shot on digital video between 2005 (when his feature-length Welt Spiegel Kino came out) and 2015, offering a rare glimpse of footage that Deutsch shot himself, rather than material that he has collated and edited.
The opening film, Adria – Holiday Films 1954-68 (School of Seeing II) dates from 1990, and is made up of Super-8 footage shot when such casual documentation as home movie-making became economically feasible. Deutsch sourced the reels from friends and flea markets, and by placing a newspaper advert, editing it together and blowing it up to 16mm. Like Film Ist, this is split into parts, although these are untitled and their boundaries feel porous. What unites the images of waves, boats, beaches, street signs, children and families is the way that their amateur captors have imbibed the idioms of ‘professional’ photography and film-making – for example, the vast majority of the tracking shots from moving vehicles go from left to right. This formal language makes it easier for Deutsch to arrange the parts by theme, and find some humour, particularly when he compiles footage of children, such as the boy who chases a crab with a tennis racket, unaware or unconcerned that the creature could hurt him. Deutsch never sneers at these tourists: rather the uncritical presentation of their footage recaptures some of the wonder they may have felt as they pioneered both home movie-making and mass international travel – a sense now reinforced by the nostalgic feel of Super-8 as a medium.
The silence of Super-8 makes it harder to locate the people filmed, leaving the question of who or what is ‘foreign’ unresolved. The lack of any soundtrack makes Adria feel a little slow, or perhaps slightly too long, but even if it does not match the dynamism of his later works, it is skilfully cut, with Deutsch’s montage shifting sharply from black and white to colour, and swiftly back again, to striking effect. Poetry and social commentary merge: as we watch the post-war generation step into strange new places, we understand that most of the buildings will have survived, but not all of the nation-states – the Yugoslav flag that appears early on feels particularly foreboding – and, of course, the people themselves are transitory.
The second film, Eyewitnesses in Foreign Countries (1993) was made with Moroccan director Mostafa Tabbou, according to Oulipo-style formal constraints. It consists of 600 shots lasting three seconds each, split into groups of 10 or 20 per motif, with scenes lasting from 30 to 60 seconds. 300 of those shots were taken by Deutsch in Figuig, Morocco, and 300 by Tabbou in Vienna. This this might make the film sound disjointed, but the regularity of its form and the symmetry of its content mean that it soon settles into a surprisingly steady rhythm. Although Deutsch was, by then, a ‘professional’ filmmaker working with an amateur (Tabbou only released one other work, again with Deutsch, the five-minute short White Marriage in 1996), there is real rigour to both the composition and juxtaposition of their material. Many aspects of life in Morocco have parallels in Vienna, with Deutsch capturing the way in which the North African climate influences the pace of life without descending into Orientalist cliché, and Tabbou giving an intriguing insight into how Austria looks to him: ordered, bureaucratic and cold, both emotionally and physically.
The centrepiece is Deutsch’s most recent major work, Notes and Sketches I (2005-15), a series of ‘pocket films’ made across Europe with a Canon camera and a mobile phone, lasting one hour in total. Deutsch uses digital technology to revisit the methods of the 19th century cinematic pioneers, especially the Lumière brothers, who would take single shots of something of interest and present them as documentaries. Unlike their works, with their duration set by the reel of film, Deutsch’s Notes and Sketches are of various lengths, tending to focus on the minutiae of 21st-century life. Only rarely do they feel too long – a scene in Venice where workmen cut down trees struggles to justify its eight minutes – and the series works best when it delivers a joke or some wry social comment, for example, where the slow movement of tourists through an airport is billed as a ‘mini-drama’.
Immediate, accessible, characterized by their gentleness, these pieces reminded me of Guy Sherwin’s ‘Short Film Series' (which I reviewed for frieze last year). But unlike Sherwin, Deutsch adds layers of signs for those who share his obsession with the history of cinema. A shot of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, nods to Derek Jarman’s Super-8 films, notably A Journey To Avebury (1971), filmed nearby; the ‘panorama’ in a segment entitled ‘Vip Harbor Seafood Restaurant, Los Angeles, 3.4.2010’ reveals the diners to be Deutsch, Tom Gunning, Erkki Huhtamo, Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs – all scholars involved with the early history of cinema, or important filmmakers from the post-war US underground.
Unlike fellow Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, who remains dedicated to 35mm film, Deutsch embraces digital media and finds amusement in its ubiquity. The moment where gallery visitors capture Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) on their camera phones works on several levels: the reification of the image first onto their screens, using technology that is frequently blamed for inducing the levels of loneliness depicted in Hopper’s painting, and then Deutsch’s; and the reference to his own feature film Shirley – Visions of Reality (2013), in which Deutsch reconstructed classic Hopper artworks and used them to explain several decades of American history.
Film Ist remains the best place to start with Gustav Deutsch, being such an intelligent study of the language of cinema, but this collection demonstrates his understanding of the way that language imparts itself on its viewers, and moves into the vernacular of everyday life. The positioning of his early works with his most recent makes it clear that this will be a constant process, that evolves with technology: whatever the format, and whichever possibilities it raises, filmmakers and viewers will continue to inform each other, and erode the boundaries between creator and consumer until they become obsolete.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her most recent book is Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). Her latest short film You Will Be Free (2017) has screened at galleries and festivals worldwide. She also hosts ‘Suite (212)’ on Resonance FM – a discussion programme that looks at the arts in their social, political, cultural and historical contexts.