Low Tech, High Paranoia
Low Tech, High Paranoia
By Danielle Burgos
On Decoder’s analog alchemy.
Decoder screens at Metrograph, as part of Pop Plays Itself, At Home through April 17.
1984’s Decoder might be the only entry in Pop Plays Itself that takes the series concept to the next level, making the medium the message. A murderers’ row of industrial artists feature in front of and behind the camera, but that’s ancillary to the film itself, a cut-up tape virus poorly disguised as narrative feature, beamed straight into audience eyes. In the chilly wake of 1977’s violent “German Autumn,” increased activity of militant factions like Movement 2nd June and the RAF were matched by that of the police. With electronic surveillance newly added to the state’s tightening control over citizens, a Hamburg squat literally followed William S. Burroughs’s instructions to remix reality and sabotage authority, creating a visual mixtape as alchemical accelerant.
Decoder’s instigator Klaus Maeck opened Rip-Off, Hamburg’s first punk shop, in 1979. The record store fast became a hangout for the deliberately provocative art and noise scene that would come to be known as the geniale dilletanten (ingenious diletantes), named for 1981’s Festival Geniale Dilletanten (misspelling included) whose line-up featured a good chunk of Decoder’s future cast and soundtrack. Maeck loved Burroughs’s nonfiction, preferring him as provocateur to author. After a police sweep cleared out the punk quarter, Maeck wanted to invoke his ideas and try less direct action against the system. In an interview from Jack Sargeant’s Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, Maeck explains, “The legal approach to organizing groups and demonstrations, spreading information via leaflets and magazines, was boring and didn’t agitate too many new folks… I always missed a fun aspect in all political circles.” Per Burroughs, it was time for the “Electronic Revolution.”
Burroughs’s 1970 extended essay of the same name expands his metaphysical fascinations, layering the sympathetic magic belief of ‘like produces like’ over his concept of language as a virus, with technology weaponized to alter the existing world. Recording a target is the first step, he instructs—the default samples are sounds, though Burroughs notes devastating effects “can be extended by taking still or moving pictures”—and “playback” is key. Cut-ups, the method where an existing text or work is sliced up and randomly reassembled, were always a form of invited coincidence and divination for Burroughs, but ‘The Electronic Revolution’ specifies intent and manifestation. Replaying the sounds of a car accident will cause another accident, or, as strategically placed “pirates” and Einstürzende Neubauten members attempted on location for Decoder, blasting riot noises might start a riot. As a reconditioning tool to alter the spell—or if you prefer cyberpunk lingo, hack the code of language to “nullify associational lines”—cut-ups could also be a tool of control, imposing new associations. Like germs, digestion, hearing, and tasting, nature is affected via invisible means. A Decoder scene of H-Burger staff training has lackadaisical employees doing squats and jumping jacks in gym shorts as a manager barks slogans and corporate philosophy. The company emphasizes physical perfection in all forms, neatness underscoring that H-Burger has nothing to hide. It’s an especially devious tactic from a company who plays subliminal Muzak cassettes over their P.A. system to lull customers into burger consumption.
At the time, few in Hamburg knew that Christiane was the infamous teen junkie whose book 'Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo' had just been made into the 1981 film 'Christiane F.' Too well-known in Berlin, she’d moved to Hamburg to stay clean and lay low.
The film was originally called Burger Krieg (Burger War), a homonym for Bürgerkrieg (civil war). Hamburger chains were then quick shorthand for Western capitalist decadence and an easy choice for targeting—and as so much cyberpunk correctly predicted, Orwellian power isn’t accumulated by a weak or non-existent government but cornered by the wealthy and/or corporate elite. McDonald’s opened restaurants in West Germany back in 1971, but the company’s attempts to sneak past the Iron Curtain were repeatedly resisted, at least until Reunification. In 1990 a mobile McDonald’s cart on the Alexanderplatz was blocked by the East Berlin City Council, and a gala promising to serve Big Macs beyond the Wall was canceled after environmental groups protesting the chain’s Styrofoam containers threatened interruption.
But the toxic seep of corporations made its way into Decoder more directly. Malcontent noise musician F.M. (F.M. Einheit) dreams of girlfriend Christiana (Christiane Felscherinow) reflecting light and crossing an endless wasteland. The sequence was shot at Hamburg’s Georgswerder landfill in 1982. A year later, deadly dioxin was discovered leaching into local groundwater, and the location was dubbed “the most dangerous hill in the world” by newspapers. In the magical universe, as Burroughs noted, there are no coincidences or accidents.
Maeck began writing Decoder in 1980, passing the script back and forth between Volker Schäfer and two friends with more filmmaking experience, Trini Trimpop and his collaborator Jürgen Muschalek, aka Muscha. They worked on the film as a four-person collective “until the first shooting day when we realized we needed one voice to decide,” said Maeck. “Muscha not only had the best visual ideas but was most certain to express them, so he became director.” Maeck was then living in a six-room squat in the middle of St. Pauli, Hamburg’s red-light district. The majority of Decoder sprang from this Wohngemeinschaft (sharehouse) in a degree-of-separation game familiar to anyone who’s ever been entangled in a local scene: friends writing the script, roommates FM Einheit and Christiane F. playing themselves as romantic leads, the musician crashing on your couch (Genesis P-Orridge in this case) agreeing to ad lib, and another friend, Soft Cell member Dave Ball, who’d previously been in bands with F.M. and Genesis, editing everyone’s adjacent projects into the film’s soundtrack.
At the time, few in Hamburg knew that Christiane was the infamous teen junkie whose book Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo had just been made into the 1981 film Christiane F. Too well-known in Berlin, she’d moved to Hamburg to stay clean and lay low. At a juncture in her life where she was trying to escape the shadow of past notoriety while leveraging it into something useful, her character’s double identity as peep-show vamp and insular misanthrope came from the red-light district itself. Ogled without being known, Christiana prefers the company of frogs. The peep-show box she revolves around in resembles Burroughs’s recommended orgone accumulators, units designed by researcher Wilhelm Reich to collect universal sexual life force from the ether and bestow it on the person within. Coincidentally, or not, Reich claimed orgone energy proof could be seen in the blue tint of sexually excited frogs—though in Decoder, the cadaverous color belongs to East Village artist and cult actor Bill Rice’s morose agent Jaeger, who obsessively stalks Christiana. Jaeger’s smug assistant was played by Einheit’s brother, Ralf Richter, the film’s only other ‘real’ actor besides Rice (having appeared in 1981’s Das Boot).
F.M. Einheit, meanwhile, was already a sonic terrorist before playing one in Decoder. Credited as Chief Machinery Operator in Einstürzende Neubauten, a band described by German teen mag Bravo as “a horrors sound with razor and electric guitar,” Einheit made his own percussive instruments out of whatever was at hand, including Blixa Bargeld’s chest for one painful recording session. Take away bandmate camaraderie and Einheit is F.M., a raw nerve skulking around the city at all hours, seeking new sounds and hacking them together to inflict maximum discord.
Rewritten in fits and starts as funding slowly came together, Decoder’s plot confused even its creators. The Hero’s Journey it is not; though F.M. gets a magic transistor from Burroughs himself and passes through the threshold of Genesis’s fire cult, the story is too slender to conform to conventional narrative. The seemingly heteronormative happy ending isn’t even sexual; desire (in the form of Jaeger, more obsessed than aroused) literally gets squashed. Aligning with Burrough’s metaphysics, the film, rather, fits the alchemical albedo—a liminal space where energy is freed from rot (here a decaying city) but not yet catalyzed into the heat of action; a period where two opposing principles eventually form not a whole, but a unity of opposites. That’s a pretty solid description of Cristiana and F.M.—surrounded by animals vs. surrounded by machines, amphibious/salamander, organic/industrialized, nibbling raw veggies vs. chomping processed garbage. Each is annoyed by the other’s obsessions—his sound manipulation, hers raising frogs, both means of control. F.M. takes out his anger on Christiana’s totem frog, and in destroying it pushes that anger outward to crumble society. In Christiana’s case, the totemic laser/knife Jaeger (literally ‘hunter’ in German—this is not a subtle film) is destroyed by his obsession with her, and she and F.M. are able to find each other again and successfully reunite. Havoc and death surround them, all of it captured on the TVs of a still very functional state panopticon.
Though the film was shot December 1982 in Hamburg, the riots were filmed in June that year in West Berlin, on U-matic and 16mm, with Super-8 cameras given to the filmmakers’ friends who were out on the streets. Maeck noted that with Decoder’s low budget, “Riot scenes we could not have staged… but Ronald Reagan came to visit.” Reality preceded the movie. A June 12 Washington Post article notes, “Police raided the headquarters of the alternative List party Wednesday, confiscating a tape cassette that contained recordings of war noises which the party had intended to play over loudspeakers at today’s rally.” According to Maeck, who only heard of it post-fact, the tape was distributed in political circles with instructions to make more copies, then play them simultaneously from Walkmans, personal equipment, and windows in anticipation of Reagan’s arrival. Tape players were confiscated by the police as weapons, the first and only time that Maeck heard of such an action being attempted.
For those looking up show times on tiny cloud-connected supercomputers, it might seem strange to consider this analog film an avant cyberpunk classic. But cyberpunk, to quote sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, is “a combination of lowlife and high tech,” vanguard science and technological achievements overlaid with societal decay. And if the idea of a sonic terrorist breaking the system comes across as a little AdBuster-y, remember that the American government, after shrugging their shoulders through two-plus pandemic years, speed-ran laws to hurl $30 million at Havana Syndrome, the psychogenic tummy ache affecting CIA/Washington peons who, as proof of the audio warfare supposedly being waged against them, offered field recordings of chirping crickets.
According to Burroughs’s theory, just by playing Decoder Metrograph is altering the very fabric of New York, appropriate for a movie that bridges two cities simultaneously coping with collapse and de-industrialization. It’s definitely an artifact of its era, but what film isn’t? Far more than a quaint time capsule, in this modern moment of cutesy commercials touting IP crossovers of South Park and Halo, Decoder’s experimentation remains visceral, even if the killer soundtrack won’t start street-wide riots.
Danielle Burgos is a freelance writer and film programmer whose personal copy of the RE/Search: Industrial Culture Handbook came in very handy here.