Although they’ve gone through several recognizable “eras” in their long existence—including crucial personnel changes—if I had to pick just one thing from their multi-decade oeuvre that best exemplifies the geräuschempfindlich gestalt of Germany’s avant garde heroes Einstürzende Neubauten to play for someone who’d never heard them before, I would without hesitation pick the 1985 film Halber Mensch (“Half Man,” also the title of their then current album, sometimes written as 1⁄2 Mensch). It’s a freaky, mutant masterpiece and in a cinematic category of only itself.
Obviously Neubauten is regarded primarily as a sonic proposition, but it’s crucial to see them live—or at least to see them in action on film or video—to understand how they do it to better appreciate the incredible prowess with which they do what they do. Not that any of the alchemical mystery of the group could ever be truly revealed under any circumstances, because… well I just don’t think that’s possible, but when you experience them in a concert hall setting able to muscularly reproduce the sounds they make in the recording studio onstage, it’s quite impressive. It’s easier for someone new to them to get it if they can see it, too.
Theirs is a form of self-expression that’s far too idiosyncratic to ever attempt to explain—although a hefty snort of speed would undoubtedly go a long way towards getting Neubauten’s point across, I should think—so why bother? Plus I respect what they do too much to try to interpret it, but if I had to describe them, and their unique artform—for God’s sake don’t compare them to Stomp or Blue Man Group!—I’d say they’re like Edgard Varèse meets the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange on the way to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s house to beat the shit out of him and burn it down.
How can something be so brutal, poetic, violent, apocalyptic, delicately beautiful and frighteningly demonic all at the same time?
Many times it’s been said of Einstürzende Neubauten that if there is a Hell, that they would be the house band and whereas this is… true of course, do you really expect that Satan would hire a hack KISS tribute band to perform for his guests? No way, dude.
Halber Mensch was shot in Tokyo by the highly influential Japanese director Sogo Ishii, the manic talent behind the dazzling “punk” indie Burst City. Sogo Ishii is not a name well-known outside of Japan, but in the early 1980s his highly stylized “cyberpunk meets Mad Max meets the yakuza” film (which featured actual Japanese punk groups like the Roosters, the Rockers, Inu and the Stalin as futuristic gangs) had made him the perhaps the hottest young “rebel” talent in the rapidly falling apart Japanese film industry of the day. Halber Mensch is one of those things where you can’t believe it exists, but clearly someone (oddly the film bears the copyright of The Seibu Department Stores, Ltd.) put up a not inconsiderable amount of money to make this film. It’s an incredibly slick and high tech looking, yet it’s also one of the most primitive things you’ll ever see. The group are seen in astonishing performances captured by Sogo’s highly choreographed camera moving across the ruined setting of the Nakamatsu ironworks, which would soon be torn down. The butoh dance group Byakko-sha provide their own interpretation of what Neubauten offer and it’s bonkers. And it all works brilliantly.
So if you’ve ever been curious about Einstürzende Neubauten, but didn’t know where to start, I’m making it easy on you. Turn your speakers up HIGH and hit play. This seems to have been sourced from the VHS tape that was for sale in the mid-80s. Halber Mensch was put out on DVD—twice—but you’ll want to make sure you get the official release from the band’s own label (it’s the one that comes with a second disc) and not the initial DVD release as that one was sourced from the VHS and looks pretty crappy.
The trailer for Sogo Ishii’s brilliant Japanese punk film ‘Burst City’