Can one fault a documentary about acid for not being properly balanced? Either way, Swiss scribe-helmer Martin Witz’s “The Substance — Albert Hofmann’s LSD” presents a lopsided and somewhat sedate history (“Enter the Void” this is not) of lysergic acid diethylamide. Frustratingly, LSD’s heyday as the 1960s counterculture drug of choice is covered extensively, even though its discovery, early applications by psychiatrists and the CIA and present-day use in psychedelic therapy offer more fascinating and less familiar narratives. Nonetheless, fest and tube interest should be substantial.Pic’s main talking head is the titular Swiss scientist, who synthesized the substance in a 1943 Basel laboratory (the abbreviation LSD comes from the drug’s German moniker). Interviewed in 2005, the late Hofmann offers fascinating and lucid commentary on his first experiences with LSD, tested on himself, and, in his view, the appalling way in which it was appropriated by Timothy Leary (who popularized the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out”) and the make-love-not-war masses. German-language narration, mixed-bag archival footage and soundbites from other interviewees occasionally stray quite far from Hofmann’s story, giving the pic a loose, rambling feel.
A Frenetic Films release of a Ventura Films presentation and production, in association with Radiotelevisione svizzera, Teleclub, Lichtblick Filmproduktion, Spotlight Media Prods. (International sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna.) Produced by Elda Guidinetti, Andres Pfaeffli. Co-producers, Carl-Ludwig Rettinger, Peter Luisi. Directed, written by Martin Witz.
Camera (color/B&W), Pio Corradi, Patrick Lindenmaier; editor, Stefan Kaelin; music, Marcel Vaid. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Filmmakers of the Present), Aug. 6, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.
Albert Hofmann, Stanislav Grof, Nick Sand, James M. Ketchum, Franz X. Vollenweider, Clark Martin, Carolyn Garcia, Roland Griffiths. Narrator: Hans-Peter Mueller-Drossaart. (German, English, Czech dialogue)