Swiss screenwriter Martin Witz talks about The Substance, Dr. Albert Hofmann, and the psychedelic art

"The music during a trip has a huge influence – along with other elements of the setting around you, like familiar people, beautiful landscape and so on."

Martin Witz: The Substance of immaculate perception

Martin Witz works first as a screenwriter for fiction films. His credits include three movies directed by Christoph Schaub, WENDEL (1987), DREISSIG JAHRE (1989) - presented at Locarno International Film Festival - and AM ENDE DER NACHT (1992), selected at Cannes, as well as FILOU (1988) by Samir and LUDWIG 1881 (1993) by Fosco and Donatello Dubini, both screened in the International Competition at Locarno Film Festival.

Martin Witz later turned to documentary, writing NOEL FIELD (1997) and VON WERRA (2000), directed by Werner Schweizer, and working as editor and sound recordist for ELISABETH KÜBLER-ROSS (2002) and EIN LIED FÜR ARGYRIS (2006) by Stefan Haupt, WAR PHOTOGRAPHER (2002) by Christian Frei - selected at Locarno - ANGRY MONK (2006) by Luc Schaedler - presented at Sundance Film Festival - and DAVID WANTS TO FLY (2010) by David Sieveking - presented at the Berlinale.

After a few docs for Arte: MALARIA (2002) and INDISCHE REGEN-ERNTE (2005) he directed his first documentary film for the big screen, DUTTI DER RIESE (2007), also presented at Locarno Film Festival. THE SUBSTANCE – Albert Hofmann's LSD (2011) – A journey through time in broad cinematic arcs, with archival material from private sources that have not been released before, newly processed international archives and principal witnesses of the historical events – and obviously Albert Hofmann, the main character who has his say time and again, interviewed shortly before his death.

Martin Witz talks about Dr. Hofmann and the relation between Acid, Art and Music.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How did the idea of Doc film “The Substance” come about? How started the thought?

LSD is only a very tiny molecule – but it is world famous! As a chemical substance it made a huge impact on western society in the 60ies. But the real LSD story (and the story behind the scenes) is almost unknown. So I thought it is about time to tell that great story for the big screen!

When was your first desire to become involved with the Acid culture?

It wasn’t so much the desire to be part of the Acid culture (whatever this might be). When I used to take LSD as a young adult in the mid seventies, the big wave was already over.  I took it basically by myself, or with my girlfriend, in the forest or somewhere else in nature.  I never forgot a minute of that experience, even if I have not taken it for more than 20 years now.

"Looking into the future it is nice to remember Albert Hofmann’s idea of spiritual centers – something he compared with the Eleusian Mysteries in the antique Greece, but based on LSD. He was convinced that the citizens of old Athens went to Eleusis once a year also to have hallucinogenic experiences (based on ergot, the main botanical element in LSD)."

What did you learn about yourself from the Doc film “The Substance”? What has offered you?

The best thing while making this film was the opportunity to visit and talk to so many of the key players of the ‘psychedelic age’ – everyone of them, in their very own way, is a great person.

What is the relation between Acid, Literature and Music?

Of course many artists in the 60ies experimented with LSD, many of them say they that the experience was very meaningful for them …and of course Acid Rock was an important part of the counter culture. But how did LSD really enhance creativity? I don’t want to say that it did not, but if you look at paintings that have been painted under the influence of LSD: they are not really the best part of modern art. They tend to be ornamental and sometimes even a bit banal. I believe that psychedelic experience has to be translated by the artist, in his or her individual way – then it can become part of creativity.

How does the music affect the mood and inspiration of trip?

The music during a trip has a huge influence – along with other elements of the setting around you, like familiar people, beautiful landscape and so on. That is why I never understood why people take psychedelic substances when they are at a party where there are many people around and a lot of blablabla. For me the psychedelic experience is something very quiet and intimate. 

"The words Dr. Hofmann says at the end of my film The Substance: That we should be thankful for the fact that we as beings have a human consciousness – and that in this sense we should not go blindly through life … through paradise, as he put it. – I feel this is a very peaceful and fundamental advice."

What characterizes the philosophy of Albert Hofmann?

Albert Hofmann indeed had a very personal philosophical approach to his LSD. How to describe that in a short way? …The psychedelic experience – as long as it is carried out in a skillful way – gives you a very strong feeling of being one with nature. This basic shift of perception will create a deep compassion for our planet. Therefore, to treat our world, all creatures and plants living on it in a respectful and loving way: this was the crucial part of Albert Hofmann philosophy.

What is the best advice Albert Hofmann ever gave you?

Maybe the words he says at the end of my film The Substance: That we should be thankful for the fact that we as beings have a human consciousness – and that in this sense we should not go blindly through life … through paradise, as he put it. – I feel this is a very peaceful and fundamental advice.

What were his hopes and fears on the future of Acid?

Albert Hofmann had more hopes than he had fears for his LSD! After the substance had been banned for so many years, he was very happy when he learned that Swiss Health Authorities greenlighted a medical study in Switzerland, his home country. It was a study with cancer patients, trying to reduce their fear of death – based on well guided LSD experience. This was exactly what Albert Hofmann was hoping his whole life: LSD coming back in the hands of doctors and specialist who know what they are doing – to help people. Comparable to the use of hallucinogenic substances by healers and shamans in traditional societies.

"Of course many artists in the 60ies experimented with LSD, many of them say they that the experience was very meaningful for them …and of course Acid Rock was an important part of the counter culture."

Do you know why Acid art is connected to underground and avant-garde culture?

I think it LSD is part of the underground because it is not only illegal, but (especially after the excesses of the 60ies) even demonized. This makes it attractive. – But maybe there is another, even stronger reason: The LSD experience is in a radical way contrary to our everyday life, so that many LSD lovers feel that it is a true antidote to our materialistic and capitalist life … in a way this is true – but it is also very romantic if you really think that LSD would create a better world.

Do you think that Acid is pointing in a new direction?

As you know there are very few LSD users these days, and it is still illegal … so there is not really a new thing going on. But looking into the future it is nice to remember Albert Hofmann’s idea of spiritual centers – something he compared with the Eleusian Mysteries in the antique Greece, but based on LSD. He was convinced that the citizens of old Athens went to Eleusis once a year also to have hallucinogenic experiences (based on ergot, the main botanical element in LSD).  Of course it is utopian to think of such spiritual centers, but I like the idea too: a place where you can go maybe once or twice a year to take Hallucinogenic in a safe and guided environment … something like a wellness area for mind and soul – I mean if you are interested in this kind of experience! 

Martin Witz - official website

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