Berlin and Beyond: The Substance – Albert Hofmann’s LSD

This terrific documentary by the Swiss director Martin Witz was a real suprise at this festival. At once reflective, au courant, intelligent, and precise (in short: Swiss), it is a great example of documentary filmmaking. Mr. Witz’s sure hand seamlessly weaves (astonishing) archival footage of the LSD years with enlightening interviews of Dr. Hofmann himself and other scientists who were working with LSD.

The documentary is chronological and straightforward, starting with Dr. Hofmann’s discovery of LSD in Switzerland in the 1940s to its approval and use as a psychiatric drug in the 1950s, to its recreational use in the 1960s, and to its present status. In doing so, the documentary underlines the absolute chemical power of LSD (a sobering but funny segment involves US military chemical warfare). More important, it uncovers the power structure that was dismantled when LSD became widely available outside hospitals and clinics. In the hands of the powerful and elite (doctors, the CIA) it was an acceptable and respectable wonder drug, controlled in its distribution. In the hands of the masses, it was unacceptable and soon banned.

This is not to take sides; rather, it encourages understanding of the complexities of the controversial subject of drugs. It also reminds us that the 1960s counter-culture movement found a tangible partner in LSD, as its main effect was to render a person one with nature and the universe. For a generation in search of a antidote to war and violence, this drug was powerful physically and psychically.

And oh, how we the audience were much reminded of Occupy Wall Street. Plus ça change.

The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD. Dir. Martin Witz. Ventura Film SA, 2011. In German and English.