If your life needs a little-seen dystopian ‘80s German film about Industrial music sparking revolutionary change in a society of fast food and cultivated complacency—and I believe it does—then your life needs Decoder. Largely illuminated in lurid reds and TV-tube blues, the 1984 film starred Einstürzende Neubauten’s then-percussionist F.M. Einheit as a sonic experimenter who discovers that playing back recordings of disturbances in public spaces can create actual disturbances among the public, a concept developed by William Burroughs in the “Electronic Revolution” essay found in some editions of the collection The Job. (In fact, Burroughs briefly appears in the film, as does Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge.)
Einheit uses this esoteric knowledge to cultivate increasingly widespread defiance and mayhem, attracting the attention of a Muzak corporate hit-man (I love the conceit that Muzak would have an assassin in its employ) whose task is complicated by his crush on F.M.’s peep-show dancer/amateur herpetologist girlfriend, played by Christiane F. The film’s themes and inspirations are illuminated by its writer Klaus Maeck in this interview from Jack Sargeant’s Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, excerpted here from the film’s web site.
I wanted to realize Burroughs’ ideas and the techniques which he described in the ‘Electronic Revolution’, and in The Revised Boy Scout Manual and in The Job. These were my favorite books … And I loved Johnny Rotten for his revolution in show business (and I still do). I was convinced that the only valuable political work must use the enemy’s techniques. From the ‘Foreword’ of the Decoder Handbook: “It’s all about subliminal manipulation, through words, pictures and sound. It is the task of the pirates to understand these techniques and use them in their own interest. To spread information is the task of all media. Media is power. And nowadays (1984!) the biggest revolution happen at the market for electronic media. To spread information is also your task. And we should learn in time to use our video and tape recorders as Weapons. The fun will come by itself.”
Being in the music business and participating in the punk and new wave explosion I became more interested in music. Muzak was one thing I found. Subliminal music to influence people’s moods, to make them function better, or buy more. So my conclusion was similar to that of ‘bands’ like Throbbing Gristle; by turning around the motivation, by cutting up the sounds, by distorting them etc. one should be able to provoke different reactions. Make people puke instead of feeling well, make people disobey instead of following, provoke riots.
Though it deals thoughtfully with provocative ideas, the film is laden with Euro art-film pretense that feels like fit matter for a “Sprockets” gag. Early on there’s a montage of video games cut with military stock footage, and another that alternates gore and erotica while Soft Cell’s “Seedy Films” plays. And it features this exchange:
But as strange as it can be, Decoder still holds a coherent, if dreamy, narrative, filled with captivating imagery and a gorgeous soundtrack composed by Einheit, P-Orridge, and Soft Cell’s Dave Ball. You can watch it in its entirety right here. I’ll throw the trainspotters a bone: Burroughs’ cameo is in the scene that starts at about 37:30, and P-Orridge’s appearance is at about 49:00.