When Kurt Vonnegut first arrived in Dresden, a city as yet untouched by war, crammed into a boxcar with dozens of other POWs, the city looked to him like “Oz,” he wrote in his semi-autobiographical sixth novel Slaughterhouse-Five. After all, he says, “The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.” When Vonnegut and his fellow GIs emerged from the bowels of the pork plant in which they’d waited out the Allied bombing of the city, they witnessed the aftermath of Dresden’s destruction. The city formerly known as “the Florence of the Elbe” was “like the moon,” as Vonnegut’s “unstuck” protagonist Billy Pilgrim says in the novel: cratered, pitted, leveled…. But the smoking ruins were the least of it.
Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners spent the next few days removing and incinerating thousands of bodies, an experience that would forever shape the writer and his stories. Whether mentioned explicitly or not, Dresden became a “death card,” writes Philip Beidler, that Vonnegut planted throughout his work. Death recurs with banal regularity, the phrase “So it goes,” peppered (106 times) throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, which Vonnegut credited to the French novelist Celine, whose cynicism tipped over into hatred. Vonnegut may have gone as far as generalized misanthropy, but his dry, wisecracking humor and his humanism stayed intact, even if it had picked up a passenger: the horror of mass death that haunted his imagination.
Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim, became “unstuck in time,” a condition we might see now as analogous to PTSD, his daughter Nanette says. “He was writing to save his own life,” as news from Vietnam came in and Vonnegut, a pacifist, found himself “losing his temper” at the television. “He saw the numbers, how many dead,” she adds, “that these kids were being conned, and sent to their deaths. And I think it probably set a fire under him to have his say.” A new documentary on the writer titled Unstuck in Time shows how much impact his “say” had on the country’s readers. Vonnegut wrote unbridled satire, science fiction, and social commentary, in thin books with irreverent doodles in the margins. As director Robert Weide says in the trailer above, holding a copy of Breakfast of Champions, “what high school kid isn’t gonna gobble this up?”
Weide, like most lovers of Vonnegut, discovered him as a teenager. At 23, the budding filmmaker contacted his literary hero about making a documentary. Over the course of the next twenty-five years, Weide– best known for his work with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm (and as a meme) — filmed and taped conversations with Vonnegut until the author’s death in 2007. The resulting documentary promises a comprehensive portrait of the writer’s life, LitHub writes, from his “childhood in Indianapolis to his experience as a prisoner of war to his rise to literary stardom to the fans left in the wake of his death, all through the lens of Vonnegut and Weide’s close friendship.”
As the relationship between filmmaker and subject became part of the film itself, co-director Don Argott joined the project “to document the meta element of this story,” says Weide, “as I continued to focus on Vonnegut’s biography.” Forty years in the making, Unstuck in Time, evolved from a “fairly conventional author documentary” to what may stand as the most intimate portrait of the author put on film. Perhaps someday we’ll also see the publication of an 84-page scrapbook recently sold at auction, a collection of Vonnegut’s wartime letters, news clippings, and photographs of the ruined German city that he never fully left behind.