Documentary Review — “The Bug: Life and Times of the People’s Car”

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There’s probably not a whole lot the car crowd will learn from a documentary about the history and allure of the VW Beetle. But there are fresh facts and dollops of charm in Damon Ristou’s “The Bug: Life and Times of The People’s Car.”

Jalopnik.com gearhead Jason Torchinsky sets us straight about its origins. Hitler didn’t “invent it,” nor did Ferdinand Porsche. The order of things was that Hitler decreed that an affordable vehicle be made for the masses, and Porsche, working from a design put forth by one Josef Ganz, created it.

Ganz? He was an auto journalist and designer whose “Standard Superior” was the prototype for the Beetle, Hitler’s notion of a “people’s car.” Ganz was a Hungarian Jew. So enough with the “Hitler’s car” hooey.

“People’s car” (volkswagen) was tossed about in a variety of usages before it became the company name for the firm than made Beetles. The cars were brought to life in the British occupation zone after the war, an export-ready business ready to be put on its feet and revive the now-divided German state.

Others talk about the design’s people friendly “curvilinear” shape, that friendly “face,” with the big eyes, the rounded edges — “like a breast’.” Yeah, it’s primal, instinctual to find a VW Beetle “cute.” The Beetle, one wag opines, is so organic “It looks like it created itself.”

The dazzling ad campaigns that made the car a smash in the US are sampled.

Testimonials come from a variety of owners and drivers, most prominently, the actor Ewan McGregor (below) whose first car was a Beetle.

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Long before he made his round the world motorcycle trips (in documentary form), before stardom or any of it, McGregor owned a Beetle, “the honest car,” a simple 20,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that required you to pay attention, to “drive” and not be fiddling with radios, girlfriends and whatever other distractions the world offered when the Beetle was king.

Want to learn about car maintenance? An air-cooled, easy-access rear-engine compact that you and your friends could literally lift and tote off the road is a great place to start. And since it had its electrical/mechanical issues, you didn’t learn to fix them by choice.

“It almost has good days, and bad days — like I do,” McGregor remembers with a laugh.

Of less interest is the film’s framing device, a “barn find” VW that one veteran restorer-hobbyist puts back on the road.  There are plenty of car restoration shows on youtube or cable, and this is humdrum stuff. And the inevitable “Love Bug” clips only point to one way the lovable cars’ burned themselves into the zeitgeist.

But taken at face value, as a film that explains the car’s “softness” and sentimental appeal and history to a new generation of potential owners and restorers, “Life and Times” — like the car itself — does what it’s supposed to do. It gets you there, with no frills, and makes you learn a few things about cars in general and this car in particular along the way.

 

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MPAA Rating: unrated, mild profanity

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jason Torchinsky, Andrea Hiott

Credits:Directed by Damon Ristau . A Firecracker release. Running time: 1:20

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