Watch the New Trailer for a Kurt Vonnegut Documentary 40 Years In the Making

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Sto­ries (and Amus­ing­ly Graphs the Shapes Those Sto­ries Can Take)

Why Should We Read Kurt Von­negut? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Watch a Sweet Film Adap­ta­tion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sto­ry, “Long Walk to For­ev­er”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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