On the 2nd of November 2019, the director Gustav Deutsch left us. Considered to be among the most prominent names in Austrian avant-garde cinema, he worked in the seventh art for almost forty years, creating an enormous fresco of Austrian and world society, both contemporary and from the past, thanks also to a copious selection of amateur and archive footage.
Pictures speak to us
And so, also the great film director Gustav Deutsch has left us. The famous experimental filmmaker passed away on Saturday, on the 2nd of November 2019, at the age of 67. This is a loss that affects not only Austrian cinema, but also cinema in general, since the director – with his special approach to the seventh art – had long since made a name for himself also abroad.
Born in Vienna on the 19th of May 1952, Deutsch first began studying architecture at the TU Vienna, and then took an interest in drawing, photography and, last but not least, music. An approach to cinema, his, which has always benefited from this important background and which, over the years, has constantly experimented with new languages to show moving images. And it is precisely experimental cinema that has been one of the most popular genres in Austria since the end of the Second World War. In this lively and pulsating cultural context, then, Gustav Deutsch definitely found what he was looking for. He soon became one of the most important names in the so-called third generation of Austrian experimental cinema (together with Dietmar Brehm, Martin Arnold and Mara Mattuschka) and became – from 1980 to 1983 – a member of the Medienwerkstatt Wien, as well as an exponent of the artistic movement Der Blaue Kompressor.
Gustav Deutsch’s highly experimental and political cinema often made use of old amateur footage shot on Super 8 or 16mm film in order to create an enormous fresco of Austrian and world society, both contemporary and of the past, a study on human beings, their habits, traditions and – last but not least – on the issue of immigration, which is one of the most comprehensive and varied ever made.
This study can be found, for example, in films like How we live – Messages to the Family (his latest work, made in 2017), in which we find a series of amateur films sent by people who have moved from one country to another to their families, in order to show what their lives are like now, as well as Adria – Holiday Films 1954-68, made in 1990, in which various films made by Austrian amateur filmmakers during their holidays were assembled, or again – following the same line in terms of topics and staging – No Comment – Minimundus AUSTRIA (1996), made from footage never used by television to which untruthful captions were superimposed, as a warning to generally be wary of the media.
And if, especially with regard to How we live – Messages to the Family, the theme is that of immigration (more topical today than ever before), this issue is also examined (also in terms of a comparison of lifestyles between two different places) in a previous work by Gustav Deutsch, namely Eyewitnesses in foreign Countries (1993), filmed between Vienna and the African oasis of Figuig, in which two different points of view are shown: That of Deutsch, who obsequiously observes the beauties of nature in Figuig, and that of his long-time collaborator Mostafa Tabbou (who also worked with him on the production of his last work), who simply observes the hectic life in the crowded Vienna.
Within Gustav Deutsch’s long and prolific career, there is no lack of important considerations regarding the seventh art itself. And so, his best-known work is precisely the trilogy Film is… (original title: Film Ist…), made between 1996 and 1998, an interesting and subjective attempt – in response to what André Bazin wrote in his What is Cinema? – to define cinema through a skilful montage of Austrian and German film clips from the archives of many film libraries.
And if, with regard to the last years of his career, he delighted our eyes – and at the same time made important reflections on life, death, the loneliness of the human being, the history of the United States of America and, last but not least, the job of acting – in the beautiful Shirley – Visions of Reality (2013), in which thirteen famous paintings by the American painter Edward Hopper were recreated and set in motion, it is also true that, examining his entire filmography, we must acknowledge that Gustav Deutsch has created an enormous fresco of our society, our history and our way of being and acting. To the point of ranking as one of the most important names in contemporary avant-garde cinema. A cinema, his, which we will certainly miss. And which, perhaps, will be further developed in the future by Hanna Schimek, his lifelong partner who has always worked with him. So it is up to her to take on this important responsibility. And, right now, in the meantime, we can only imagine her sitting, alone, in an empty movie theatre. Just as happens in Hopper’s painting Intermission (1963), which Gustav Deutsch reconstructed so well in his time.