Color, 1984, 88 mins. 34 secs.
Directed by Muscha
Starring FM Einheit, William Rice, Christiane Felscherinow, William S. Burroughs, Genesis P. Orridge
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)


A Decodercounterculture art film like no Decoderother and virtually impossible to track down for decades outside of repertory screenings, Decoder is a media-obsessed slice of provocation that plays as much like a crazed art installation as a work of cinema. What reputation the film has is largely due to a supporting role by none other than the legendary William S. Burroughs and its cutting edge soundtrack (including Soft Cell and Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, believe it or not); though certainly not for all tastes, it's a potent slice of provocation that shows what was really going on in the waning days of the German New Wave.

In a blue-heavy Hamburg where oppressive secret government agencies monitor the populace and screens are filled with everything from Metropolis to monster porn and autopsies, a fast food burger joint called H-Burger lulls the populace with anonymous Muzak. However, F.M. (FM Einheit) latches on to these tactics and decides to try blasting abrasive industrial music instead, a tactic that agitates the population into revolution. That's the concept anyway, but the film takes a large number of detours involving an infestation of frogs, physical fitness, analog audio gear, and the man charged with taking F.M. down, drab bureaucrat Jaeger (Rice), who becomes fascinated with peep show duo performer Christiana (Felscherinow, better known to the world as "Christiane F.") who has her own connection to F.M.

That summary is a lot more linear than the actual experience of watching this film, which is full of interjections of industrial footage, blasts of colorful lighting, and dreamy non sequiturs. The film is definitely its own beast but could easily be programmed alongside anything from The Fan to Liquid Sky to Nekromantik without missing a beat, and its emphasis Decoderon riot culture is still unsettling thanks to real-life German uprising coverage seamlessly integrated along with footage of real-life Decoderburger chains for a cognitive disconnect like no other.

Proving it will never be pinned down to one category of film, Vinegar Syndrome has unleashed Decoder back upon the world as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition with a vibrant, impressive transfer from the 16mm negative. It's a real beauty with almost blinding colors at times, and it certainly blows away the ancient VHS-sourced bootlegs floating around if you hunted hard enough. The DTS-HD MA German mono track is also immaculate and comes with optional English translated or English SDH subtitles. A new audio commentary by The Miskatonic Institute's Kier-La Janisse is essential listening as she provides a dense, very informative survey of this film including the identity of director "Muscha" (who apparently filmed his own suicide) and any number of other topics including the subterfuge involved in shoot at a slaughterhouse, the media culture at the time, the writings of Burroughs, Psychic TV, a real-life attempt to provoke a riot through audio involving Ronald Reagan, the meaning of the "H" in the burger shop's name, and lots more. "Sound as a Weapon" (37m38s) with writer-producer Klaus Maeck is an English-language recollection of the production (including some highlights from his own collection like the U.K. DecoderVHS Decoderedition) and the German post-punk movement, including his own involvement in the music industry from record stores to concerts. An archival audio interview with Maeck (45m21s) is more theoretical as he talks about the ideas behind the film and the media concepts he and his fellow collaborators were toying with at the time, including a coffee shop incident that inspired the "burger civil war" concept. Maeck also introduces and presents "Excerpts from Pirate Tape" (4m54s), a Derek Jarman short capturing Burroughs on the set (and viewable in full on the BFI's Jarman Volume 1: 1972-1986 set). After that you get a chunk of raw Super 8 footage (9m34s) of the anti-Regan Berlin riots from 1982 that ended up being integrated into the film, a hypnotic then and now locations comparison (2m26s), a stills gallery (6m2s), and the original trailer. Tucked away at the end is a confounding short documentary (10m9s) about the later Italian Decoder Collective inspired by this film to explore alternative media communication, shown here through a long bit of computer animation and a discussion about the idea of media disruption that ignited the members' imaginations.

Reviewed on September 14, 2019.