Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in April 2020, and expanded in June 2022.
For international audiences, Gustavo Jahn might be readily associated with João, the lead character he plays in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor, 2012). Long before being cast for the film, however, he was already known in Brazil for his work with Melissa Dullius in the duo Distruktur, working primarily with photochemical film, bending the industrial precision of the mechanical medium with their bare hands.
Following Jahn’s excellent Éternau (2006), the couple moved from Porto Alegre to Berlin and co-founded the artist-run film lab LaborBerlin. Using the lab as a studio, Distruktur’s work explores the creative possibilities of 16mm in all stages of production, from the use of long-expired film stock to trial-and-error experimentation with the developing process, creating very peculiar films that stand at multiple intersections: between narrative and non-narrative, transparency and opacity, melancholic exile and transnational exploration, technical control and improvisation, but also between the theater and the gallery space, the studio and the home, the b-movie tradition and the Avant-garde.
In their hands, film is both vehicle and matter, as the documentation of the extraordinary gallery piece Lux Interior (2011) best expresses, using a modified 16mm projector to conceal the image, rather than project, creating a succinct vessel for the many contradictions faced by the cinema when surrounded by white walls.
The duo publishes many of their shorter works on Vimeo, adding another layer of transmediality to projects steeped on material mediations. Of all the films available, the most radical display of their multifaceted artistic universe is the medium-length Cat Effekt (2010), co-directed by Jahn and Dullius. As he described in an interview by Stefan Solomon, published at Senses of Cinema in 2016, the idea for the film came from a happy accident when developing footage for Triangulum (2008):
“Cat Effekt really began as the idea of repeating an accident… When we returned after shooting Triangulum in Cairo, we asked the cameraman, Michel Balagué, who was staying a few days more, to shoot a street cat, because we wanted to use it in editing… And so he shot it, he came to Berlin and he processed the material himself. Then he called us and said ‘something strange happened, it looks really nice but it also looks really different.’ And then we saw it and the cat, which appears in Cat Effekt, is glowing with a yellow-gold colour, almost as if it was burning.”
In a personal correspondence, Gustavo Jahn shared some more information about how this original accident led to a consistent aesthetic choice:
“I taught a workshop in Lithuania right after filming Triangulum, in 2009, and I projected the shot with the golden cat as an example of solarization. The cinematographer Vilius Mačiulskis was in that workshop, saw that scene, and became obsessed about repeating the effect. He started writing “Cat Effekt”in all the reels he was shooting. He studied at VGIK in Moscow, was an important catalyst of the process, and ended up being the cinematographer of the film.”
Set in Moscow, Cat Effekt plays like a dusty vinyl record picked up from a pile at a second-hand store. Haunted from the very beginning by cinemas of different times and places – with the very cool Distruktur logo at the opening nodding to the legacy of European film studios – the film is like an item dismembered from a private collection once stacked with works by Jacques Tourneur, Yvonne Rainer, Philippe Garrel, Kenneth Anger, Julio Bressane, David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard, Bette Gordon, and Stan Brakhage. Weathered by Dullius and Jahn’s extremely personal imagination, these neighboring worlds find a way into the filmic matter to reappear with an uncanny electricity, as if photochemical film itself carried the ghosts of cinema history in its own flesh.