The Substance: Albert Hofmann's LSD Review

The Substance is a Swiss-made feature-length documentary which gives a general overview of LSD throughout its seventy-year history and serves as a useful primer for the subject of psychedelics. It is structured around extensive interviews with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first discovered the substance, Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist well known for the practice of psychedelic therapy, and various other luminaries in the field. Their accounts, both personal and professional, interact with a fine body of archive footage from the 1940s onwards to weave the extraordinary story of one of the most controversial and powerful drugs – both in terms of active dose and also in transformational effect – to ever have been unleashed on mankind.
The psychedelic properties of LSD were first discovered in 1943 when Hofmann accidentally ingested a small dose and found it unusually pleasant and stimulating. In interview he then goes on to tell the famous story of how he subsequently gave himself what he thought to be a minute dose – 250 micrograms – and became overwhelmed by a terrifying trip due to the drug’s unexpected extreme strength. Nonetheless the potential of the drug in psychiatric research was immediately evident and Sandoz in Basel, the laboratory where Hofmann worked, began to make it available.

For Stanislav Grof, LSD proved to be a life-changing experience, and he became a pioneer of its use in psychiatry and psychotherapy, advocating a spiritual and holistic approach with remarkable results that went way beyond the bounds of conventional psychotherapy. Here was a wholly positive application of the drug, but as tool it could also be put to more sinister uses, and the CIA and United States military conducted experiments in acid brainwashing and the inducement of incapacity during combat. Footage of laughing smiley-faced soldiers trying to perform drill manoeuvres whilst under the influence provide, in retrospect, an amusing aspect to this misguided project, and unsurprisingly military use of LSD was abandoned due to the sheer unpredictability of its effects.

This is well-documented territory, covered in a number of books on the subject, so for a documentary the added value comes in the form of the archive footage, where the visual aspects say so much more than words. This is profoundly illustrated in clips where tripping subjects are asked to articulate their experiences and struggle to put the ineffable into words and inevitably fall short; but their intense emotional reactions, ranging from being tearfully overwhelmed by a sense of wonder, to non-stop ecstatic laughter, together with the dilated pupils and those signature far-away looks in the eyes speak volumes.
As the story moves on into the later 1960s, when LSD became a mass counter-cultural phenomenon and was made illegal, the archive and associated footage is used stylistically, with fast cutting, distortion and multi-layering techniques employed with cosmic portentous music and acid rock to produce that familiar filmic mimicking of the LSD state – but it isn’t overdone. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters hit the road in swirls of saturated colour; the Beatles show up to sing ‘All You Need is Love’; and Jimi Hendrix does a crazed, guitar-smashing rendition of ‘Wild Thing’. In this period the principal figure in the LSD movement was Timothy Leary, and the various clips show his transformation from a Harvard professor with a credible academic interest in the drug to a messianic figure who’d built a cult around himself and the use of LSD as an anti-establishment weapon, with the inevitable collision with the authorities ensuing. Leary’s behaviour undoubtedly aided the demonisation of LSD, and wise old Albert Hofmann is very critical of Leary’s advocation of the uncontrolled use of the substance, particularly by the young and inexperienced.

The story eventually comes full circle, with LSD’s initial employment as a psychiatric and healing tool now featuring, along with the related substance psilocybin, as it’s principle non-recreational purpose. In such carefully controlled settings, LSD helps terminal cancer patients to come to terms with impending death by revealing it in a larger existential context. As Stanislav Grof says, there is more to being alive than the body and the psychedelic experience opens up those extended dimensions, and regardless of any dogma about a putative afterlife, such experience is healing in itself.

One could say that the roller coaster experience of the LSD trip is mirrored in the course of its own history, which is charted so well in this documentary. For those already familiar with the territory there are new aspects to be found here – particularly in the form of rare archive footage – and for those who know little or are mystified by the subject, this is a very good place to start. LSD ultimately became neither the horror substance that destroyed the minds of generations of the young and gullible, nor the panacea that brought peace and love to all; but on hearing the wisdom expressed by Hofmann, Grof and others in the field, such as Ralph Metzner and Roland Griffiths, one feels that its course is now set more firmly towards the latter objective, which is all to the good.


The UK version of The Substance comes courtesy of Soda Pictures and is presented in 1.78:1 ratio. An English commentary has replaced the original German and interviews in German, such as Albert Hofmann’s, have English subtitles. All the archive footage has been resized to fit the 1.78:1 ratio, so the flow of imagery is relatively seamless. The archive footage itself is variable in quality, some of it very good considering its age and some with extensive surface dirt, tramlines and graininess; but this is to be expected and even adds a touch of authenticity. The video quality of the disc itself is reasonable throughout. As for the audio, the stereo soundtrack is clear and crisp, including archive audio, and the musical sections are especially punchy.

The only extra is a twenty-six minute interview with director Martin Witz, which is conducted in French with English subtitles. Witz talks of his extensive preparation for the documentary and how Albert Hofmann unfortunately died (at the age of 102) before his interview could commence – the interview featured was from another source. Witz says that though he has taken LSD himself, he doesn’t consider himself to be ‘an insider’ of that world – referring mainly to mystical orientation – but instead wanted to make a more objective statement about the drug and its place in the world. In that he has certainly succeeded.

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