Dan Barrow reactivates the nearly-forgotten
punk film for 2015 and beyond.

Dan Barrow
Courtesy of Klaus Maeck
Summer-Fall 2015

In the red surrounds of a peepshow, a man describes his dream:

Walking down a road surrounded by fields, familiar though he’s never been there before, he sees “something in the road. You know, it’s bright, shiny.” He tries to pick it up but it slides from his fingers. The girl, in Cleopatra makeup and barbaric glass earrings, asks what it was. He asks if he can see her after work; she turns him down. He replies that he’ll recognise her anyway in the crowd. “I’m an expert at this. We’ll meet again.” Society, it seems, is a form with the logic of dreams: lost objects, persons and sounds can always return with uncanny force.


When Decoder was released in West Germany in 1984, it emerged from a range of odd and incongruent sources. Most of the footage had been shot the preceding year by a collectively-organised DIY crew without much previous filmmaking experience. Klaus Maeck, who originated the story and wrote the first script draft and helped find the funds, ran Rip Off, the first punk record shop in Hamburg. Volker Schäfer, who would go on to do art direction for Amélie (2001) and Hannah Arendt (2012), had no editing, production or writing experience. Muscha— a painter and later video artist, took responsibility for direction— and Trini Trimpop, who had co-directed a feature in 1980, were both from the Düsseldorf punk scene. Christiane Felscherinow, who played the girl sporting a jet-black Chelsea cut, her whole fringe falling to one side, had acted in a student film two years before. Felscherinow also had the dubious honour of having her own biopic, Christiane F. (1981)— a grimy depiction of her career as a teenage prostitute and heroin addict— which had given her a bizarre fame in Berlin punk circles. Even stranger was the presence of Bill Rice— a painter, performance artist and autodidact scholar of Stein and Picasso— whose haunted eyes and scraped-back hair had already appeared in a number of No Wave films by Beth and Scott B and Amos Poe.

Maeck’s scenario took the atmosphere of West Berlin subculture at the cusp of the 1980s and projected it into the necessarily parodic, unreal, camp terms of dystopia. With a narrative economy that looks like both incompetence and the tactics of underground film— it’s hard to tell which— the plot is murkily implied rather than advanced, at least until the protagonist FM Einheit’s meeting with a cult about midway through.

In a near-future Berlin, a semi-feral youth culture exists in the ruined spaces outside the sphere of consumption. FM and Christiane (Felscherinow) live in a flat resembling a bargain-basement version of Deckard’s bachelor pad in Blade Runner (1982) with dripping pipes and metal worktops.

On the set of Decoder

Caption: Christiane F., Werner Schmiedel (Sound), Johanna Heer (Camera), sitting: Muscha (Director)

At their workplace, symbolised by the H-Burger corporation, labour is regulated by various sorts of crypto-fascist indoctrination: the boss makes employees do coordinated exercises and repeat all of their hygiene regulations. A shadowy corporation, of which Jaeger (Rice) is an employee, surveys and polices the populace from a control room with media monitors beaming out blue-light stimulants like Elvis’s TV room.

FM, unemployed, spends his days and nights fiddling with various noise machines in an attic studio. In the confines of H-Burger, where an apparent friend has just started work, he records the background music— a replay of an episode recalled in mythic form in William Burroughs’ 1971 pamphlet The Electronic Revolution. FM spots the H-Burger manager fussing about the restaurant’s tapes and finds that— in a moment of unintentional hilarity— by stuffing his fingers in his ears, the perceived air of well-being in the room dissolves. Later, playing tapes of manipulated music, the music suddenly begins to shift out of tune and the customers experience the taste of their food changing to ashes in their mouth. Clutching their stomachs, they flee the restaurant. Thus, the plot moves on to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      


Dan Barrow is a poet and critic. He has written for The Wire, Sight and Sound, The Quietus, PALE Journal and others. He is on Twitter @satinisland and blogs at

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