Directing the underground – interview with Klaus Maeck
Not too long ago, we had the pleasure of seeing an exciting new documentary titled B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 at Szemrevaló Film Festival, depicting the vibrant music scene of West-Berlin in the ‘80s. We sat down with one of the directors, Klaus Maeck, to ask him about the making of the film, his roots in the underground music scene and his experimental influences.
B-Movie is a very massive and thorough documentary looking back on the 1980s underground West-Berlin music scene. What was the process that led from finding all the footage to compiling them into a coherent narrative?
The starting point was a big music video archive of one of the directors, Jörg Hoppe, who has worked in music television for thirty years now. He founded programs in Germany like Viva, so he had a big archive of videos and interviews with artists. Of course we didn’t only want to compile music videos and interviews, so we searched for the material firstly in private archives. This was because Jörg Hoppe and I both lived in Berlin in the ‘80s, so we knew the people who were making films at that time. These films were mostly Super-8 or the more professional 16 mm, since there were no video formats back then, and we just didn’t have cameras in our pockets like today.
There were only a few people filming, and of course we all knew each other because it was a rather small crowd. So we approached these people if they still had some film footage from that time, and we found a lot that was never published, because a lot of the material wouldn’t stand alone as a film. They were just sitting around in boxes, so it was a long long process of viewing everything and selecting what could be interesting. I think we had something like 150 hours of material to go through, and then we looked at German and British television archives as well.
The longest process, however, was the editing: how to put this huge collection of material together to make a film and how to find a structure for it, because it would have been boring to just see an archaeological review of which bands existed at the time. So it took quite a while, until we finally had the idea to use Mark Reeder as a person to lead us through those times. It only came up when we found some clips of him from BBC’s program The Tube. They knew Mark Reeder was living in Berlin in the ‘80s so they asked him to show the British youngsters what it was like to live there, and he was quite good at that. Then we found more and more material by Mark Reeder, and even he himself found another box of films in his room at the very end, so we were happy to have a lot of footage featuring him.
That is when we decided to use him as a character leading us through the film. We shot some re-enactments with a young actor who looked very similar to Mark Reeder, but we didn’t shoot that many scenes. I would say only about 5% of the film is re-done material, to combine all the footage and make the film more fluid and give everything a flow. I think that makes the film very different. The reason is we wanted to avoid ‘talking heads’, interviewing old people talking about how beautiful their youth was, because I think it must be boring for young viewers to just listen to people telling stories. So we really wanted to show the film footage and of course the music to get across the feeling of living there at that time.
We could experience a variety of interesting scenes and some great music in the film, both from artists that became widely known over the years and those who faded into obscurity. Do you have a favourite artist that is featured in B-Movie?
I do have a favourite band. For me it is clearly Einstürzende Neubauten, because they were one of the most extreme acts, in the sense that they explored and really expanded music and my music taste. There were many German bands who just copied English or American bands, but Neubauten was one of the first bands, as far as I can remember, who started singing in German. Everybody sang in English at that time, because we thought that German is not a language that can be put to music. Only around then did German bands begin to actually sing in German, and Neubauten was one of them.
They also tried to use everything that made a sound to make music. They were so different from any other band I knew, that’s why I liked them so much. If you listen to their first record today, it doesn’t sound so extreme anymore because now we are accustomed to hearing many different sounds, but back then it seemed really radical. People said “this record is unlistenable” and “it’s not music.” Today, we laugh about it, but at that time it was a really extreme sound, so maybe that’s why I liked them and their approach to music. They’re still going today, even though they have a very limited audience, unlike pop acts like what Nick Cave or others became. Still, they were very important for the German music scene back then.
Speaking of the German music scene, I understand you had some musical activities in the past. Can you tell us about that?
I opened the first punk record store in Hamburg called Rip Off Records in 1979… by accident! That’s because I didn’t have a job, I was driving a taxi to make some money. I overheard somebody riding in my taxi who was talking about punk music with a friend. I was interested in punk already, so I said “look, I’m doing a little fanzine and I have an interview with Johnny Rotten” – which I invented because I couldn’t get hold of Johnny Rotten, though I actually tried to. But I thought that in punk you can just do it like that, so I made up the interview and showed it to this guy and he asked me to help him. He was planning an exhibition about music, 25 Years of Rock’n’Roll, and punk was the latest musical explosion. I sold books at a little table at that exhibition, because there were no records at that time, at least no German ones.
Then I opened this little store that very quickly became a meeting point for punks, and a few weeks or months later it became an actual shop because suddenly there was an explosion of self-made, independently produced 7” records and albums. Almost everybody sang in a band and gave concerts, but we also produced our own records, because the record industry was just not ready for it. They only recognized what was going on years later, and wanted to cash in on it, so they invented the Neue Deutsche Welle. This was a phenomenon of more ‘artificial’ bands singing in German and trying to hop on the new trend. Of course they had much bigger marketing budget and such, so for us in the independent scene it was getting harder and harder to sell records. Not only my store went bankrupt, but many small labels and distributors. But in general, it was the start of the independent music business in Germany, which has become quite big today.
You mentioned underground music and its radical feel. One of your first movie projects, the cult film Decoder has a very distinct, extreme style and musical theme as well. Not only that, but it features a variety of intriguing characters, among them one of the great experimental writers of the 20th century, William S. Burroughs. Did he influence you in the early days in any way?
Oh yes. I loved to read his books but I don’t think I really understood them. I understood the sense behind them though. I liked William Burroughs for trying to go beyond the limits of literature in a way, but the most interesting thing that I found is that he also explored other media, pushing the boundaries of film and sound with tape and film experiments. So he was a big influence for writing the script of Decoder, because I liked the idea that by cutting up sound, you can manipulate people. It’s like we are being manipulated by cut-up sounds all the time, by advertisements or by muzak, which is the theme of Decoder. It’s the mellow music influencing you to feel better, to work better, to buy more.
So influenced by Burroughs, I made a story about what happens when you cut up sounds and turn it around to make people feel bad when they eat a burger at a fast-food place or, later on, even to provoke street riots with sound cut-up experiments. This also has a lot to do with music at that time. As I said, I liked Neubauten so much because they tried to go beyond the established conventions, and that is a big leitmotif with William Burroughs as well.
Thank you for the interview!