Over the past three decades, the German cine-essayist Hartmut Bitomsky has staked out a position at once lofty and material—making coolly detached documentaries that address subjects like the history of the autobahn or the nature of the wind in cinema. Devoting itself to the tiniest “visible subject” that a film can have, Bitomsky’s Dust manages to be philosophical without seeming pedantic. No quoting the Book of Genesis or invoking the Greek atomists or citing Crosby, Stills, and Nash (“We are stardust”), or referencing Joseph A. Amato’s recent defense, Dust: A History of the Small and Invisible. Rather, in a sort of deadpan parody of the German obsession with schmutz, a cross-section of Bitomsky’s couantrymen hold forth.
Bitomsky introduces the notion that his own medium is both dependent on dust—what else is film grain?—and destroyed by those stray particles that adhere to a projector or celluloid. Paintings are similarly produced by the “good” dust (pigment) and threatened by the “bad” that museumgoers track into the gallery. Over the course of 90 minutes, he elevates the mundane to a cosmic struggle against unwanted material as manifest in factories, quarries, and apartments—and confounding one hausfrau (whose weekly regimen includes cleaning the inside of her television set) with the factoid that 95 percent of household dust comes from people. Some take their dust personally: A businessman designs an improved vacuum cleaner; a student of “fluff” creates a taxonomy of dust bunnies (“The dust in one’s home is an archive”). Dust can be a social problem (asbestos) or a natural disaster (the Dust Bowl), or both. Bitomsky unpacks the archive of 9/11 dust: a blend of construction debris, toxic garbage, and human remains. Dust is not only universal, but the stuff of the universe, as it breaks apart and reconstitutes itself.
Dust—the movie—is characterized by its clean cinematography, uncluttered compositions, and unceasing dialectic. At one point, Bitomsky offers the spectacle of a Hollywood wagon train trudging through the wilderness, accompanied by the Sons of the Pioneers singing “Rolling Dust.” The grainy black-and-white image is intercut with color shots of majestic cloud formations. Without dust, we’ve already learned, there would be no blue skies.