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The Bug Movie

Illustration for article titled The Bug Movie

Last night I saw the world premier of Damon Ristau’s The Bug at the final night of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.


Damon is a filmmaker local to Missoula, Montana, and his first movie, The Bus, was also about VW’s

Ristau has evolved impressively as a filmmaker in the time between these two features, both in terms of narrative and cinematography. The Bug is a much more comprehensive and contemporary look at the history of VW - both in America and worldwide. It’s a compelling story about how this joyous little rolling bundle of steel and rubber became a cultural force. The film does an excellent job of placing the Beetle in the lives of individual drivers, as well as documenting its wider global reach.


The film chronicles the year-long amateur restoration of a 1960 Sedan in Montana, saved from the proverbial old lady’s barn. It was a project that her husband had started 25 years ago, but never finished due to his untimely death. The reunion in the final scenes of the movie of the revived Beetle and its former owner illustrate perfectly the emotional bonds we develop with our cars.

Interwoven with the personal story, the filmmakers dive deep into the history and sociology of the Bug. Your friend and mine, Jason Torchinsky, drops some serious knowledge about the Beetle’s beginnings in the 1920s and 193os, its relationship to the Nazi war-machine, and the erasure of Jewish automotive designer Josef Ganz and his original “May-Beetle” from the narrative. The Torch Bug also gets lots of screen time (even Jason’s Reliant has a 1 second cameo!).

Interviews with Randy Carlson from, Andrea Hiott (author of the excellent Thinking Small: The Long Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle), Ewan McGregor, and lots of other less well-known Beetle fanatics from around the world add texture and character to the film. Jason Willenbrock, who undertakes the restoration of the barn-find Beetle in his garage, channels the unfiltered joys and frustrations of working on 50 year-old cars - yelling “c**ksucker!” at the car at one point as he tries to install the new engine. We’ve all been there.

Overall, as an automotive documentary, The Bug really hits the sweet spot - it taps into nostalgia without being sappy, and takes a hard look at the history of the car without coming across as pedantic or overly apologetic for its imperfections. The filmmaker said in the Q&A afterwords the movie was a “love letter to the car and the company”. But love has its ups and downs, and The Bug doesn’t shy away from criticizing VW for the recent diesel emissions cheating scandal, and flatly accuses the company of losing its way.


The film sold out the 1200 seat Wilma Theater, and a line of Beetles were parked out front, including the restored 1960 Sedan that was the real star of the film. I heard dozens of conversations among movie-goers reminiscing happily about VWs in their pasts, and as someone who grew up in a Beetle family the film also struck all the right chords for me as well. In fact, it even inspired me to work a little harder on the glacially drawn-out restoration of my own Beetle.

The Bug is a film for all automotive enthusiasts, not just VW homers. If you have the opportunity to see it at your local film festival, I highly recommend it. It should be made available for purchase online soon as well - keep an eye on the movie’s Facebook page for details.

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