Decoder Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Vinegar Syndrome
Directed by Muscha
Written by Klaus Maeck
1984, 89 minutes, Not Rated
Released on August 27th, 2019
FM Einheit as F.M.
Bill Rice as Jaeger
Christiane F. as Christina
William S. Burroughs as Old Man
Genesis P-Orridge as High Priest
A disillusioned young man named FM, living in Berlin in the early 1980s, discovers that the lulling music played through the speakers at the fast food burger chain where he works is laced with subliminal messages designed to ensure complacency and consumerism. He experiments with new types of music and sound effects and plays his creations in the restaurants resulting in radically different behavior in customers. His efforts draw the attention of the secretive corporation behind the musical score, which sends an agent named Jaeger to silence him. FM’s experimental music selections inspire riotous behavior and soon violence erupts in the streets as masses of people clash with police to protest against the government.
With its nihilistic message of civil disobedience and stylistic visual presentation Decoder is a powerful example of the German underground film scene of the 1980s. Colors are bold and well-saturated and help to identify characters in a world on edge. The sound design is aggressive with its atmospheric landscape of industrial music and layered sound effects. The editing style is also frenetic at times, lending a feeling of unease as graphic images of actual violence are intercut with the story. Also featured prominently is raw footage of the 1982 Berlin riots showcasing lead actor/musician FM Einheit (Einstürzende Neubauten) walking the streets during the unrest. This material is sprinkled throughout but plays a major part in the final act.
In addition to Einheit, the film boasts additional street cred with the likes of counter culture novelist William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) appearing in a supporting role as The Old Man and avant-garde musician Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle) playing the High Priest of the Underground. Author and musician Christiane F. (We Children of Bahnhof Zoo) co-stars as FM’s frog obsessed girlfriend, Christina. New York indie actor Bill Rice (Coffee and Cigarettes) plays the burned out agent Jaeger with a haunting presence that leaves an impression. The soundtrack features music from Soft Cell, Psychic TV, Einstürzende Neubauten, and The The.
Directed by Muscha (Humanes Töten) with an artistic flair, the experimental film moves at a deliberate pace, parsing out information sparingly as the images steadily advance the story. Written by producer Klaus Maeck (William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers), based on a story by Maeck, Muscha, Volker Schäfer and Trini Trimpop, the man vs. society tale expands on the idea of using sound as a weapon with mind-controlling messages hidden in music. Inspired by the writings of Burroughs, including The Electronic Revolution and The Job, the film favors a strange rhythm over a strictly coherent or linear plot.
Over the last thirty-five years, Decoder has earned its standing as a legitimate cult classic. Its timely themes and nuanced performances coupled with a challenging soundtrack and artistic imagery add to its lasting effects. The movie briefly appeared on VHS but soon disappeared into relative obscurity. The film returns to mainstream audiences in a newly restored special edition that will please longtime fans and intrigue new viewers. It’s nice seeing Burroughs again and hear him reading from some of his work. If you missed this one long ago, now is a great opportunity to add it to your collection.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the original 16mm camera negative has received a 2K scan and been fully restored. Colors are bright and well-saturated and black levels appear bottomless. Flesh tones appear natural throughout and there is plenty of small-object detail.
A DTS-HD MA 2.0 gets the job done with a dynamic soundtrack of music and effects tracks that create a haunting soundscape. Dialogue levels are clean and free from hiss or other distortion. The film features both German and English languages with optional subtitles available for anyone in need.
Author Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) delivers a well-paced and highly informative audio commentary that traces the history of this film and offers a look back at underground cinema of the era. This is a solid track that is well worth a listen.
In the newly recorded interview Sound as a Weapon (38 minutes), writer/producer Klaus Maeck talks about his contributions to underground press and getting into filmmaking. He reflects on the making of Decoder and shares his insights from the production and working with the cast and crew. This segment covers a lot of ground including the inspiration for the film and working with the director and the influence of independent cinema.
An archival audio interview (45 minutes) with Maeck covers some of the same territory as the new segment, but is engaging and informative. He has kind words for the director, discusses funding the project, casting, working on the soundtrack and filming the Berlin riots and more.
Excerpts from “Pirate Tape” (5 minutes) finds Maeck introducing the story of filmmaker Derek Jarmon (Aria) visiting the set of Decoder and filming William S. Burroughs for a short film of his own. The footage runs only a few minutes and features slow-motion images of Burroughs getting out of a car, stepping into a location and later signing autographs on the street.
Up next is a sample of unedited Super8 footage (10 minutes) from the 1982 Berlin riots featuring actor FM Einheit walking the streets amid a heavy police presence and crowds of people.
The short featurette Locations Then and Now (2 minutes) offers a side-by-side comparison of the places the film was shot in 1983 and how they appear today.
The Decoder Collective (10 minutes) is a mini documentary about a website inspired by the film dedicated to undermining the mainstream media. The guys who run the site are interviewed about following the ideas of the movie and putting them into practice. This segment is in Italian with English subtitles.
A photo gallery plays as a slideshow (6 minutes) featuring publicity shots, cast photos and behind-the-scenes images set to music from the soundtrack.
The original theatrical trailer is included.
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