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Jack Sargeant: What other films and work were you engaged with prior to Decoder?
Klaus Maeck: My first film was a ten-minute experiment on 16mm, with a group of young students at some kind of youth hostel programm,called Dream. That was made around 1976, and was about the only film education i had.In 1979 i opend the first punk store in Hamburg(germany), which became more of a punk hangout than a store.I had a cheap Super-8 camera, and we shoplifted enough film material to be able to shoot our little movie called Amok-a ‘Koma’ film production. No dialogues, the music explained everything; German punk and ‘avant-garde’ tunes, some English classic and Throbbing Gristle. Elements from Clockwork Orange, punk attitudes and the almighty power of television were the themes.
In the same year we did …Und Sie Wissen Nicht, Was Sie Tun Sollen(…And They Don’t Know What They Should To Do), the title is very similar to the German title to the famous James Dean film, the one with the car race[Rebel Without A Case]. The film showed punks in the quarter. In the end we added television footage of the busts of the German RAF (1) leaders, as they were led into prison. About a year later, in 1979 or 1980, the police cleanded up the punk quarter. Indeed on ereview in a good German daily paper helped a lot towards getting funding for the next project which i started to plan, or write about, in 1981/82. The working title was Burger Krieg(Burger War). The German word Burger standa for civil, so the title means civil war… eventually the title changed to Decoder.
JS: I wondered how you began to script Decoder, abd also what attracted you to Burrough’s work, and these ideas in particular
KM: Well… I forgot to tell you about another experiment i did around 1977. I was totally inspired and excited by Burrough’s cut-up idea so a friend and i collected Super-8 material to actually take Burroughs’ idea literally. We cut the films into very small pieces, mostly only 2-5 frames, and glued them together in a different order, ‘accidentally’, according to ‘chance’. The resultat was a film where you saw hardly anything, you could not catch what it was about, but there were some images which stuck in your mind. Not many friends were as excited as we were, and i have no idea where that film is today, although i would love to see it again.
So, anyway, i have named the main inspiration. 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. I tried to read Burroughs’ novels, but i got into them much later. I did not understand much of his own results, but i wanted to use these techniques. I didn’t like Burroughs’ as a writer or an artist, I liked him as a revolutionary. Being involved in political work in the ’70s showed me that I never really felt comfortable in these circles; the legal approach to organazing groups and demonstrations, spreading information via leaflets and magazines was boring and did not agitate too many new folks. And it was getting more and more dangerous in a time when the militant factions like Movement 2nd June and RAF etc. grew, becoming more and more active. And so did the pressure from the police and state. The other option was going underground, but I was scared of prison. I always missed a fun aspect in all political circles. The subtitle of my freak magazine Cooly Lully Revue, which was produced in 1976/77, was”magazine for the radical joy of life”.
My approach became different, especially when I left my political friends when they hated punk for being fascistic. And I loved Johnny Rotten for his revolution in show business(and I still do). I was concinced that the only valuable political work must use the enemy’s techniques. From the ‘Forward’ 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 intrest. 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 funktion 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.
The new burger chains spreading in Germany, being a part of the decadent imperialistic American culture, were a good target for this subversive war-described in Burroughs’ manuals. One of our original ideas was a actually use low,low bass frequencies in some scenes so that the viewer in the cinema should feel uncomfortable-to feel the movie! (again Burroughs’ instruction for using infra-sound).
JS:How did you go about casting the movie?
KM:From the beginning of writing the script, in 1981, I involved characters I was living and working with. FM Einheit from Einstuerzende Neubauten was the ideal anti-hero, scrambling music in his underground laboratory, as in real life(Neubauten were my second favourites, after the Sex Pistols). To make a story I needed personal relationship, and I asked Christiane F. who lived in our ‘commune’ at the time. Only a few people knew it was the famous junkie girl who got rich early by the licensing of her book Children From Station Zoo. She had left Berlin where everybody knew her by now, and were it was hard for her to stay clean, as she was in those days. We lived in the middle of Hamburg’s red lihgt district St.Pauli, full of peep shows … so there was the clue. She played two persons; one in public,being looked at through holes and for money, and the other a very private person, who preferred to live with animals(frogs)instead of men. It was hard for her to find real friends, real love, in both the film and in real life, since many people were only after her money. The story came from there…
Well, and we needed a bad guy. An agent, not from the state or police, but from a big private corporation, like Muzak Corp, or H-Burger, as we called the burger chain(H,of course, stood for heroin in those days). And to make an exiting story we needed dubios characters, confusion…the agent was more interested in his personal obsession than in his job. Well, in the end our story became so confused that nobody could really understand what was going on- unless he studied the film carefully.That is also due to the fact that ‘we’ in the beginning were two writers. After the first ‘draft’ I presented the script to Trini Trimpop who had done one film before and knew about possibilities for financial support from local film institutions. We worked on the script together for a second version. Soon Trini introduced another friend of his was good at dialogues and additional levels. Getting more and more convinced that we could realize the film, finally Muscha joined the team to direct the movie (2)
JS: How did you get the funds to finance the movie?
KM:The first money we were promised was from Hamburg’s Film Funds. I remember that one member of the jury of five was to become Hamburg’s Burgermeister(chief of the local country and city government) later. However, they liked the script and gave 250.000DM-which was about half of the budget we needed. The money was only to be paid when we were able to get the funding for the other half. So we tried in Trini and Muscha’s county and received additional funding of 100.000DM. Finally the Berlin based Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film gave 50.000DM. What sounds so easy now took a lot of time-each time we had to manufacture a dozen scripts including calculations, illustrations, crew and actor proposal, and each time we had to wait another three months for a decision.
When we had the 400.000DM after one year(one year after the script was finished, although we kept changing and adding scenes) we decided to go ahead and start shooting. It was getting urgent since there was unique chance to get Burroughs’ involved. I had written a letter to him explaining the script based on his ideas and asked him to participate. I head already met him my first contact with him was in 1980 when I visited him in Lawrence(where he still lives) to interview him for a German magazine. Well, he answered, saying that he would be open to participate whenever it would not involve too much time. And then this event in London came along- The Final Academy- organized by Genesis P-Orridge and others. I also had been in touch with Genesis P-Orridge, and we organized a time to shoot one afternoon – we had exactly one hour. The location was a small store for electrical appliances in Tottenham Court Road. The video-camera was operated by ‘Sleazy’ Peter Christopherson, also from Throbbing Gristle, and early Psychic TV. We soon realized that Burroughs was not too good at repeating any lines or movement so we told him to stick to the old tape player we gave him to dismantle. While we were shooting, changing angles etc. he just kept on dismantling this machine, and I think he enjoyed it. I also remember not being too happy about the performence of our two actors (Burroughs and FM Einheit), but what can you do in one hour?
Having finished, Burroughs left the store with a little gift for his participation – a bottle of vodka. In front of the store waited his two assistents, and a few more people. One of them was filmimg through the window, while we worked, with his Super-8 camera. Much later I learned that this was Derek Jarman, who used this footage for his film The Pirate Tape (1982). You can catch pictures of a very young Klaus Maeck in there. Nice little film,
I like it.
JS:The film appears to have really contrasting scenes, using red and blue light to delineate various characters, how did that idea come about?
KM:At some point at the preparation of the movie we decided to work with Johanna Heer as the director of photography. We liked her last film, a New York underground movie called Subway Riders, which also starred Bill Rice. And we wanted him too, we lived his face and expression. There was no other choice for our agent. Asked to participate by Johanna he was happy to come to Hamburg for one month. The actual shooting of the movie took place in December 1982 in Hamburg.
We liked the extreme use of lightning by Johanna in her earlier films and gave her all freedom to do what she would like. She chose the obvious colours for the different characters, so Bill Rice always appears bathed in blue light, Christiane always in red. I am not the person to go into this too much, since I never really liked this idea too much. It was okay for the time, it was ‘new wave’. Muscha was responsible for ‘style’, and sometimes he exaggerated.
JS: How did the film production work, given that you were working as a part of a group?
KM: The relationship between the four of us? You could call it perfect teamwork. You could also call it organized chaos. None of us was a professional,and most of the things we did, we did for the first time. From script-writing to budget calculations, from getting the necessary documents to work in the streets to set decoration, from continuity to wardrobe, finally the long process of editing and adding sound – we did all of this ourselves, and I never again learned so much about filmmaking.
I can still laugh about our naivety; until the first day of shooting we did not decide who was actually going to direct the movie. But quickly we learned that teamwork has its limit. Although any director needs good assistance there has to be one responsible person to decide. So the rest of us ended up as co-directors for Muscha, since he was the loudest and most secure in directing people.
Those four weeks of shooting were very intense. Including the main actors there was always about twenty people working, day or night, always close together, working hard. In these four weeks almost everybody had at least one ‘breakdown’ – where he could not stand it any more, when he wanted to drop out. But I think that is quite normal for such an intensiv team work. Paradoxically having worked at such a thing once, you get addicted to making films. Well, I felt that at that time. It can change your life! Well, it actually did; Johanna married the sound-man a little later, and the camera assistent fell in love with FM Einheit’s wife, who left him.
JS: Can you talk a little about what happened when you began to shoot in Berlin…?
KM: Probably the most exiting footage we recorded was in Berlin when President Reagan visited. We knew that there would be riots, it was a popular game at that time. We went there with one 16mm camera and one U-Matic video camera, which we were set up safely on balconies. And we were in the middle of the action with three more Super-8 cameras.The game was to provoke the police. The political Scene in Berlin was big, and the police did not have many chances, we knew, and it was fun. Whenever the police were going to another area,we had time to think of something new to get them back into action. We placed ‘tape terrorist’- friends holding tape recorders – to get footage for our film wherever the action was. So the members of Einstuerzende Neubauten were helping us too. Too bad that in the film our footage looks like archiv footage from television, because we had to use video and blown-up Super-8 material which both obviously look different in a 16mm movie.
The best story of all is that we were more than surprised that our script became true before we even started. Whwn we came to Berlin we realized that there were actually tapes spread around, distributed around the political circles, with the instruction to make further copies and then play them all at the same time, from Walkmans, from personal equipment in the homes through open windows etc. – and it worked!! At 11.00am you heard helicopters and shooting, although there were none.You heard Jimi Hendrix, and some German political band. The police had heard of this action and confiscated a lot of tape recorders the night before – as weapons! Too bad I never heard of such an action again, although I am sure that so many exciting incidents could be provoked by that. Today the technology is so much better and smaller you could do even better!
So, as you can guess from all this background, yes I was fascinated by the ‘guerrilla’ aspect of Burroughs’ work. I was interested to see whetever it was possible to fight for your interests not on the streets, but from inside the system, through cultural media, like literature, film and sound. I realized what strange effects the combination of these media can have. Burroughs’ films with Anthony Balch presented experiments from the ’60s, and here we were in the ’80s not having progressed too much in that field.
One Of my favourite movies was – and still is – Themroc(Claude Faraldo,1972) with Michel Piccoli, a french film. There is no dialogue at all in this film, omly the sounds which surround you, so these sounds and gestures and mimicry become much more important. In this film, Piccoli becomes bored to death by his factory job and drops out, stops speaking, passing through crowds with an animal – like roaring voice – in the end he catches a cop to fry him on his self-made grill.
The editing of Decoder took almost one year, due to time and money shortage. We had to work at night, at weekends.For the music we were proud to work with Dave Ball, who had been in Soft Sell, Genesis P-Orridge and FM Einheit. Almost every single sound in the movie had to be amplified by the adding of artificial sounds which was fun to do. But remember, this was all hand-crafted, there were no computers involved then. We ended up with various layers of sound tapes, all being put at the correct points by hand…
We will never know if the decision to wait for the 1984 Berlin Film Festival for the premiere screening was the right decision. Most critics did not like the film, they did not understand its background and meaning. We got bad reviews in Germany and so we were not able to find a distribution company. The film was shown at several European festivals, but was not screened in Germany until 1986 – another trick helped. Again we applied for funding, this time for the distribution. We found a small Berlin-based distributor who was able to get it into the cinemas by employing me as a kind of ‘product manager’ from the fund money. So I got a small salary for organizing the first and only tour through Germany. The film is still distributed today, but has no more than five to ten screenings per year,with hardly any income.
However, there is an exception; in Milan,Italy, a political/subcultura group named their magazine after the movie, and by now they should have about twenty issues of Decoder published(in Italian only). After getting more into publishing they started to translate the Re/Search books about Industrial Culture, William Burroughs’, and other issues (3). Today they run a small publishing company doing their own books and working for the famous Italian publisher Feltrinelli. The film Decoder is shown in their squatted ‘social centres’ quite often. The last time I was invited to present and talk about my films was in April,1996, when more than 300 people came to see the movie. Around the same time they released it on video. At that event some guy walked up to tell me that Decoder was his first movie he saw and that it changed his life! See what you can do with film!
JS: One of the central scenes in many ways is the telephone scene between Mufti and Christiane, where they are both talking to each other on the phone , and the cameraq eventually pulls back, and you can see that they are in the same room.I was really fascinated by that, and wondered if you could tell me how the scene came about, and also – given the film’s emphasis on electronic forms of communication – what are your opinions of electronoc communication, do you think that technologies like the telephone ‘mediate’ communication? I mean, it seems even more interesting given Burroughs’ writings on the nature of language and the word…
KM: If you ask me details like why we made the telephone scene between FM Einheit and Christiane I feel uncomfortable explaining, because it is a visual abstraction, or an instrument to create a character. One aspect is that Christiane doesn’t like to be stared at, she wants to hide. She loves it when her boyfriend(played by FM) speaks to her through the telephone, if ‘he is in the ear’. No face: no view. Hearing is feeling. Hearing the pure word, with no images to distract the mind.
Or is it a hint that we even use technical devices to communicate whenwe don’t need to, when we could communicate in person? There are many ‘hints’, many details in the movie, which nowadays can be interpreted as a wise prophecy, and so it might be it is nothing other than one transcription of zeitgeist at the time.
JS: DECODER seems to me to be the only Burroughs-influenced film which actually focuses on that side of his work, the entire underground technological thing, with the ensuing riots, and the tape-machines as weapons idea. DECODER seems almost to be unique in approaching Burroughs from a very political perspective; why do you think that is?
KM: Wha is there no other political approach to Burroughs in films? I don’t know, and I would love to see more of that. Although I have often heard the reaction that Burroughs’ ideas are too ’60s or ’70s, and are outdated. I do believe that so much more is there to learn from him. So many things that he described, analyzed, and prophesied came true. Cut-ups are as common in films as they are in commercials, or as they are in modern music. And now, what can we do with the internet?
JS: How did the Commissioner Of Sewers film come out?
KM: In 1986 I moved from Hamburg to Berlin. After being bankrupt with my punk store and independent record distribution, since the major companies came along and joined in, I was living on welfare. Now I had a new job in a small film distribution company, working on Decoder for three months, when I heard that William Burroughs was invited to read in Bremen(germany). I contacted him and invited him to read in Berlin on the same trip. It was his last public reading in Germany. I booked a cinema with 350 seats- we wanted to present Decoder as another premiere. Nobody knew how many people would show up. I think there were so many that more than 100 did not get inside. However, we were prepared to film his reading with two cameras and in front of a blue screen. The reading was at 10.00pm which was late for the old man. He went to sleep a little in advance and we had to wake him up at 9.30pm. First thing he asked for was a big joint, and totally stoned he entered the stage. But his reading was fantastic, and so was the reaction.
JS: Why did the film took so long to produce, from the actual performance to the finished video?
KM: It took me five years before I could edit the material – again due to money shortages. A professional video editing suite is very expensive, and I had to wait for a better chance. In 1991, living in Hamburg again, I met my co-producer who offered me the use of his studio for nothing, if he got 50% of all future income. “Fair deal” I thought, and I doubt he will ever see the amount of money which I would have had to pay.
JS: How did the visual effects come about, those colorful backgrounds while William Burroughs is reading? They’re interesting because they remove the performance from any kind of ‘real’ context, from the ‘verite’ nature of most of the performance films that Burroughs – and the beats in general – have appeared in. The effects also go back to what I was saying earlier about mediated communications, about using technology to rewire speech.
KM: My idea from the beginning was ti illustrate his reading with background material. Well,I had time enough to collect that over the years. We used footagr done in the Berlin Zoo while he was visiting (incidentally, the zoo was the only tourist attraction he wanted to go to visit. The same happened years later when he stayed in Hamburg to work on Black Rider (4). Then there was some of my video-8 footage, shot during another visit to his home in Lawrence,Kansas, in 1990. And some excerpts from his own experimental movies, etc. Then images of the words typed onto a typewriter, these were words from book pages etc.
This was still enough, and I added another level by putting on some music, in order to create an atmosphere. Who wants to watch a reading? To serve all senses I wanted to involve all possible layers of word, image and sound – especially since the mixture of all creates something new, sometimes surprising. You put music to an image and it starts to live. You put an image to music and it starts to move. You put another image on top and it creates meaning, another life.
It is too bad I only had ten days to edit this movie, because parts of it are really just experiments which could have been more perfect, more sophisticated. As with Decoder I know what I would do differently today. But than again, Commissioner Of Sewers is a time document, nicely illustrated to ease the access to this brilliant man.
Be aware that for Germans it is not always easy to understand his American accent, even if you do speak English. And so many people here do not understand his humour, which is what makes him so funny and lovable.
JS: What are your plans for the future, do you see yourself making more films?
KM: By studying Burroughs’ work, his books and painting, I got much more interested in art (and in the art of living). I am still interested in experimenting with all media, and with different approaches, the most exciting results I still find in the interzones, in various crossover of art and culture; between the lines.
I keep on writing, although not much of it is published yet, although there may be a first book of mine published in Italy soon. I keep on filming every few years, whenever there is a chance. And I started painting, much to my surprise I am more fascinated by it than I ever imagined. But I have my day-time job which fills most of my time.
In 1988 I founded a music publishing company called Freibank, with my partner Mark Chung. When he split from Einstuerzende Neubauten I also took over the management of the band, which is still going after 16 years. They were the first band we published, we soon started working for others such as Nick Cave, and Diamanda Galas. Over the years the spectrum widened, and nowadays we work with many artists and bands, and we became one of Germany’s most attractive independent publishers. This keeps me busy, too busy to write new scripts or novels, too busy to make films. But my time will come again.
(1) The Red Army Faction, one of ’70s Germany’s infamous “terrorist” left wing organization.
(2) Trini Trimpop and Muscha made the debut film with Humanes Toten(1979).
(3) ReSearch was the San Francisco based sub-cultural journal, issues included The Industrial Culture Handbook (which focused on Burroughs-influence performers such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK and NON) and William Burroughs/Brion Gysin/Throbbing Gristle, which included extracts from Burroughs’ Revised Boy Scout Manual, as well as interviews with both Borruoghs and Brian Gysin.
(4) Black Rider was a theatre piece directed by Robert Wilson and featuring William Burroughs and Tom Waits. ✪