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William S. Burroughs and industrial music all-stars in dystopian 80s cult film ‘Decoder’

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.

Posted by Ron Kretsch
10:24 am
Heroin chic: Christiane F., teenage junkie, prostitute, style icon

Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (“Christiane F. – We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” in English) is a 1981 German film based on the autobiographical recordings of a young heroin addict and prostitute in West Berlin. It was one of the most successful German films of that year, going on to become a worldwide cult hit, but one that stirred up a lot of (I think justifiable) controversy.
Vera Christiane Felscherinow
Two journalists from Stern magazine, Kai Herrmann and Horst Rieck, met the girl, Vera Christiane Felscherinow (born May 20, 1962) in 1978 when she was a witness against a john who paid underage prostitutes with heroin. The reporters were shocked to the extent of the escalating teenage drug problem and spent over two months interviewing Christiane and other young junkies and prostitutes (of both genders) who congregated near the Berlin Zoo. They ran several articles and a book Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, covering four years (ages 12-15) of her life on the streets, was published in 1979.

Christiane lived with her mother in a bleak West Berlin neighborhood full of the sort of postwar high-rise apartment blocks that were often hives of social problems. She became fascinated by a discothèque that she had read about called “Sound” and although she was only 11-years-old, too young to be admitted, she was able to get into the club. There she fell in with a fast crowd who were experimenting with various drugs and by the time she was only 14, she was turning tricks to feed her habit in the Bahnhof Zoo train station.

When the film—directed by Oscar-winner Uli Edel—was released in 1981 it was a huge hit in Germany, and elsewhere, turning Christiane into somewhat of a celebrity in Europe, a real-life “Go Ask Alice” who had great fashion sense and cool hair. And this was the problem: Although the film does not intend in any way to glamorize the life of a heroin-addicted teenage prostitute, it inadvertently does. The fact that the actress who played Christiane F. in the film, Natja Brunckhorst, was so beautiful didn’t help matters. Soon teenage girls were emulating both the cinematic “Christiane” and the real-life Christiane’s hair style and clothes. The Bahnhof Zoo station even became somewhat of a Japanese tourist destination, for a while.
Actress Natja Brunckhorst and David Bowie

I saw this film when it came out, when I was a teenager myself, and I can recall thinking that a) Natja Brunckhorst was super hot and that b) doing some drugs with such a cute girl and going to a David Bowie concert (he’s seen in the film performing and provided the soundtrack music) seemed like a really good time to me. I can certainly understand why why German youth advocates were concerned at the time by the way impressionable young girls saw Christiane F. as a role model.
Thirty-some years after it was released, the film still has that undiminished heroin chic quality going for it. This comment was left on YouTube just one week ago:

Amazing film. Amazing book. She was so beautiful. So clever. Such a shame she ruined her life. But she’s a hero. And maybe I’m the only one who thinks this, but it looks to me kinda attractive,you know. I mean,seventies, Berlin, David Bowie, freedom,it all looks so great! Today it’s awful.. Like everything.

You see what I mean?

The real Christiane F.

Christiane F. released a few records under the name Sentimentale Jugend, in partnership with her then-boyfriend, Alexander Hacke (of Einstürzende Neubauten) in the early 1980s. (Here’s their cover of “Satisfaction.”)

The couple also appeared in the 1983 German film Decoder, along with Neubaten’s F.M. Enheit, William Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge (you can read about the film at The End of Being) (I suppose this is as good a place as any to tell you that I once answered the phone at a German friend’s apartment. I had to take a message and when the caller said “Tell her Christiane F. called” I just HAD to ask if she was THE Christiane F. and she said yeah and seemed really annoyed with me!)
Although she has been able to support herself from author’s royalties for many years, Christiane F.‘s life has been anything but easy, She’s been on and off drugs since her teens and at one point a few years ago, she lost custody of her young son. In 2011 she was caught up in a drugs sweep when police searched her bag at the Berlin train station, Moritzplatz, a known haven for junkies, but no narcotics were found on her person. As you might expect, every couple of years the German media check in with her to “see how she is doing.”

Below, Sentimentale Jugend, live (with Christiane F. on guitar) in Berlin, 1981.

Posted by Richard Metzger
12:34 pm