Apr 30, 2011


While viewing the pessimistic, yet poetic German dystopian avant-garde science fiction film Decoder (1984) - directed by Muscha and written/produced by Klaus Maeck - one gets to experience the greatest work of aesthetic terrorism ever committed to low-grade celluloid. The film was heavily inspired by the subversive meta-political cut-up theories of William S. Burroughs, so it is fitting that Decoder writer Klaus Maeck would once again pay tribute to the Beat guru by directing the spoken word collage documentary William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers (1991). Taking inspiration from his best friend Brion Gysin, Burroughs began experimenting with cut-ups, henceforth cutting-up and re-structuring everything from his writing to tape-recorded audio tapes (comprised of everything from authoritarian voices to noises in the street) while living at the Beat Hotel in 1960. The excessively pessimistic and anarchically individualistic Burroughs once stated about Gysin, "Brion Gysin was the only man I ever respected," so it is no surprise that the Beat writer would take his friend's odd experiments very seriously. Both Burroughs and Gysin were assisted by mathematician and scientist Ian Sommerville. Burroughs would later pay tribute to Sommerville for his efforts by creating a character modeled after the Beat technician named “Subliminal Kid” that is featured in the cut-up novels Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded. Burroughs' cut-up experiments were also inspired by unconventional quasi-scientific instruments, including wacky Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator and The Church of Scientology’s E-Meter. With his tape-recorded cut-up experiments, Burroughs felt he had the power to use auditory aesthetic terrorism as a weapon to counter government propaganda, and even cause anti-government riots. In Klaus Maeck’s ingenious experimental work Decoder, a young “noise-freak” named F.M. experiments with anti-Muzak in an attempt to destroy corporate (brainwashing) muzak that is played at an imperial and Americanized fast food chain called H. Burgers. H. Burgers advertises that they “serve 100% German beef” and they have an employee army of fascistic H-Burger Youth. F.M. is disturbed by the fact that the Muzak played at H-Burger hypnotizes customers, thus turning them into loyal consuming automatons.  Of course, in Decoder - muzak (mood altering music) is better than music - but muzak of the corporate persuasion is ultimately dehumanizing and downright evil.

In an interview featured in the book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema written by Jack Sargeant, Decoder writer Klaus Maeck stated the following regarding William S. Burroughs in an interview conducted by the author, “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 humor, which is what makes him so funny and lovable.” Of course, your typical American would also be at a loss to understand the absurdist humor and non-linear writings of William S. Burroughs. Naturally, Burroughs' greatest admirers are fellow artists who found much inspiration and insight in the Beat writer's vast collection of works. In Decoder, the cast of actors (most being non-actors) is made up of various artist who were inspired by the Beat guru in one way or another. The main protagonist of Decoder, F.M., is played by F.M. Einheit (also known as Mufti) - the real-life musician best known for contributing his percussion talents to the German post-industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten. F.M.’s beautiful girlfriend Christiana is played by Christiane F. – the real-life best-selling author and ex-junkie/ex-prostitute who wrote the gritty autobiographical book "Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981)" - which was later adapted into a notable film of the same name. Also, Genesis P-Orridge - the pioneering industrial/post-industrial frontman (Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) and real-life friend of William S. Burroughs - plays (during his pre-tranny days) an occult muzak High Priest in Decoder. The only “real” actor featured in Decoder is William Rice - who plays Jager - a hit man sent out by an evil Muzak corporation to kill E.M.. Although an eclectic and influential avant-garde artist who contributed much to the art scene in East Village, NYC during a number of decades, Bill Rice is probably best known in the cinema world for playing himself in the segment “Champagne” featured in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Last but certainly not least, William S. Burroughs plays a phantom shopkeeper in Decoder who gives E.M. a dismantled machine during one of his psychedelic lucid dreams. To say the least, Decoder features an all-star cast of real-life aesthetic terrorists that also happen to be the artistic heirs of William S. Burroughs.

Like Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky (1982) and Agustí Villaronga's In a Glass Cage (1987), Decoder is a totally audacious libertine art house film with an uncompromisingly distinct aesthetic that could have only been conceived during the ultra-materialistic dystopian nightmare era of the 1980s. Also like both Liquid Sky and In a Glass Cage - Decoder is a work of cinematic poetry - where the aesthetic integrity of the film is more important than the plot. Not to say that the plot of Decoder is irrelevant (it was inspired by the mind of William S. Burroughs after all!), but that the film’s plot is secondary to the alluring and mood-altering imagery of the film. Like a novel by William S. Burroughs, specific scenes of Decoder will leave a deeper impression on the viewer than the fairly uninvolved (yet meta-politically inspirational) plot. In fact, after initially watching Decoder, most people will have a difficult time articulating the plot of the film, but, of course, certain scenes in the film will indubitably stick out in their minds; whether the viewer likes it or not. Despite being a film about the power of magickal sounds and spellbinding muzak; Decoder - a virtual cinematic kaleidoscope - is ultimately a visual affair that transports the viewer to an aesthetically pleasing Teutonic post-industrial wasteland - where colors speak louder than words and where a person’s physical appearance reveals the most about a person's character. In the world of Decoder, German children dress up in Wehrmacht uniforms while playing their favorite arcade war games and new wave technocratic stormtroopers militantly roam the nuclear-rainbow-colored streets.  Instead of embracing the Blood and Soil ideology of the Third Reich, the thoroughly Americanized post-WW2 German populous featured in the film robotically live for microchips and desolate sidewalk strips. For those individuals who have always wondered what a William S. Burroughs-inspired punk rock nightmare would be like, Decoder is probably the only film that offers such a delectable absurdist, albeit fanciful, cinematic affair. While watching Decoder, I couldn't help but wonder what the film would be like under the influence of a dreamachine (which makes an appearance in the film); a stroboscopic devise that produces visual-stimuli (a "drug-less" psychedelic high) for the viewer through its hypnotic flicker, which was invented by Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, and Ian Sommerville ; the three men that also inspired Decoder

Aesthetically, Decoder owes some credit to the mostly forgotten no-budget “para-punk/no wave” films that were made in New York City during the late 1970s. The cinematographer behind Decoder, Johanna Heer, worked on the para-punk film Subway Riders (also featuring Bill Rice) directed by Amos Poe. In comparison to the extremely amateurish and often times improvised para-punk films, Decoder received much better funding (most of which came from West German government subsidies including "Hamburg’s Film Funds" and "Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film") and consequently grandeur productions values. It should also be noted that the recently deceased industrial/post-industrial musician Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (Throbbing Gristle, Coil) played an imperative part in the production of Decoder by operating a video camera that was used to capture the cameos performances given by Genesis P-Orridge and William S. Burroughs in the film.  Although P-Orridge's and Burroughs' appearances are brief in Decoder, they add a certain celebrity and character to the work that is vital to the film's artistic credibility.  As one can expect from a film featuring pioneering industrial muzak-makers, Decoder is equipped with a complimentary soundtrack featuring tracks from such notable muzak groups as Soft Cell and Psychic TV. Indeed, Decoder is a wonderful work that travels through the meta-political heaven and hell (and everywhere in between) of the muzak world - a magickal and marvelous apocalyptic microcosmos where dream and reality are virtually one in the same - thus it is no surprise that the film is arguably the greatest phantasmagorical dystopian cinematic dream ever created. When it comes to the sub-genre of sci-fi-cyber-punk sinema, Decoder is certainly the greatest and most original of its kind (sorry Japan!).  It is certainly not a coincidence that Germany and Japan - the two axis nations that were defeated in the second world war; literally the most tragic and deadly military conflict in human history - have been at the forefront of creating the most gloomy, pessimistic, and perverted films that the world has ever known.

William S. Burroughs, "Anyone with a tape recorder controlling the soundtrack can influence and create events." (The Invisible Generation, 1966)

 Occult Muzak High Priest (Genesis P-orridge) in Decoder, "Information is like a bank,
our job is to rob that bank."

Out of all the characters featured in Decoder, sexy Christiane F. is easily the most peculiar. What makes Christiane so different from the rest of the characters in the film is that she mostly lives in her own escapist world of the organic - where technology is disdained and frogs are godly. Apparently, the real-life Christiane F. is also an introverted lady who finds happiness and comfort in the company of her loyal pet frogs. Of course, Christiane F. is incapable of manipulating modern reality like her noise-freak boyfriend due to her uncompromising aversion to technology. When bickering with E.M., Christiane quips after mentioning the unoriginality of his noise-terrorist activities, “Even the Gestapo used music to make people shit to death.” On top of being a linguistically eloquent lady, Christiane F. is also the most beautiful person featured in Decoder, despite her ridiculous punk rock wardrobe, cyber-punk hairdo, and atrocious personality. By ignoring technology, Christiane F. has only confirmed the victory of globalist corporations, therefore, she hates technology in vain; whether she acknowledges it or not. Although Christiane's anti-technocratic sentiments are admirable, she offers nothing in the way of practical solutions (aside from effortlessly cock-teasing hit man Jager) for correcting her grievances, but, instead, verbally assaults her boyfriend; a proactive man who selflessly risks his life for the good of his technologically-enslaved nation. Thus, Christiane - an armchair revolutionary of the worst kind, with a unflattering passive slave-morality to boot - is an excellent example as to how one should not react (escapism and mere negative criticism) when battling corporate terror. E.M., on the other hand - has the right idea - as he has made an effort to learn the corporate enemy's subliminal techniques and cryptic-strategies, henceforth somewhat successfully battling corporate muzak with his subversive anti-muzak.

Decoder Soundtrack featuring songs from Einstürzende Neubauten, Soft Cell, E.M., and Psychic TV 

The cut-up novels of William S. Burroughs and the revolutionary anti-technocratic film Decoder were certainly ahead of their respective times, as both ambitious experiments are more relevant today than when they were originally released. It is no mistake that scenes from Fritz Lang’s futuristic dystopian sci-fi film Metropolis (1927)  appear in Decoder, as both German films foretold the progressive enslavement and collective homogenization of man via technology and international capitalist monopolies.  Man may have created the machine in a feeble attempt to become god, but now the machine controls man and man is left with a godless spiritual void that will most likely never be organically fulfilled. It should be noted that most of the key points predicted by German philosopher Oswald Spengler (whose works were a major influence on William S. Burroughs' worldview) in his work Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of life (1931) – a short, but insightful book that poetically illustrates man’s technological deracination from nature and inevitable dependence on manmade machines – have unfortunately come true.  Although Decoder was released over a quarter-century ago during the Orwellian year of 1984, war fought through abstract and subliminal technology has only become even more relevant and inorganically sophisticated - as one can engage in cyber-wars on the internet from the comfort of a personal home computer.  Now the layman can cheaply operate his own international digital television channel via YouTube, as well as manage a worldwide digital newspaper via a blog/website (like this one!).  For the more criminally-minded, one can attack government computers, steal a person's identity, and illegally appropriate money as an online hacker from any place in the world. If you think William S. Burroughs was merely a degenerate junkie-queer writer, it is about time you open your eyes and unplug your ears, and watch Decoder; a film that clearly demonstrates as to why the Beat writer lived by Hassan I Sabbah’s supposed last words, “Nothing is true – Everything is Permitted.”

-Ty E

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