Boombox in tow, a young musician stands on a West Berlin street, framed by newspaper headlines that scream “Fassbinder Dead in Front of TV”. It’s a neat, resonant image – burgeoning creativity haunted by the spectre of death – and the sort that’s everywhere in B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989, an engaging documentary of a musical subculture that plays as a collision of the individual and the socio-political. Assembled from hours of archival footage and interspersed with uncanny recreations, this explicitly personal recollection from British writer-narrator Mark Reeder is indispensable as a capsule of a radical artistic period. For fans of German avant-garde, dance and post-punk sounds – and beautifully bleak Cold War vistas—it’s also rich ear and eye candy. Dieter from Sprockets would have loved it.
In late 1976, David Bowie had famously decamped to West Berlin, drawn by the desire to exorcise his demons and explore the music of Neu!, Kraftwerk and the Motorik jams that were inspiring him and his collaborator Brian Eno. Reeder, a young musician enduring the economic woes of Thatcher’s Manchester, followed suit – effectively announced here via a blaring opening montage set to the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun”. Like his peers in Joy Division, who fused their agitated punk to Hütter-Schnieder beats, or the wandering teutophiles of Christopher Petit’s Radio On, Reeder felt a kinship with the grim, discarded city that had been physically annexed from its own country. Bowie may have moved on and stalled out in pop, yet Reeder—and West Berlin—thrived. B-Movie is just that: the flip side to the era’s familiar MTV narrative.
Reeder’s discovery of Berlin forms the basis for the film’s structure. From his beginnings as an eager musician to his immersion in the city’s thriving counterculture and unlikely role as its champion to British audiences, he serves as a key insider and the guy perfectly placed to document its history. The city he first encounters is as schizophrenic as its unusual physical situation – literally divided in two by a massive wall – one where economic squalor and angry clashes between police and rioters coexist with progressive musical experimentation. It’s the kind of place that, like the split-personality Berlin of Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 Possession, could swing violently between euphoria and terrifying emotional carnage. “Berlin is a pretty damaged place,” as one producer puts it here, “so our music is, too.”
Likewise, B-Movie is a reminder of a time when an uneasy city would attract those of a similarly restless spirit. Keith Haring, Tilda Swinton, New Order and Nick Cave all make appearances, though Reeder’s focus necessarily remains with the German music scene. Reeder’s friendship with radical noise musician Blixa Bargeld is given due attention, as is his production and boosting of all-girl electro-punk band Malaria!, who were defiantly harder than any of their male peers. The material is augmented by footage from a Berlin special of BBC’s The Tube, in which Reeder introduced unsuspecting British pop audiences to Bargeld’s Einstürzende Neubauten and caught up with junkie superstar Christiane F. None of it is as quaint as Nick Cave offering a tour of his Kreuzburg bedroom, where the skinny Australian ex-pat proudly shows off his collection of “gothic paintings” and gun.
It all makes for an arresting aesthetic collage. Directors Hoppe, Lange, and Maeck take a simple chronological approach to Reeder’s account, seamlessly integrating archival material with occasional period recreations while resisting the urge to retroactively frame the footage with “edgy” pretence. It helps that Reeder was not only a producer, occasional art-movie actor and TV host, he was a keen documentarian – and his material proves essential here. With its refreshing lack of talking heads and just Reeder’s narration, B-Movie reads organically, threading film and performance clips, vintage interviews and television reports to a soundtrack of new wave and electronic music of the period. The recreations are skilfully staged – especially amusing, Reeder taking a first date to see Uli Edel’s cheerful teen heroin dirge Christiane F.—and clearly the work of directors properly affiliated with the material (Maeck, for example, wrote Decoder, 1984’s seminal noise-terrorist film of the period.) The editing creates a tense political narrative concurrent to Reeder’s diary reflections: jittery cutting between Cold War reports and news of the Chernobyl disaster provide useful context. Reeder, for his part, makes for a welcome guide. Never straining for documentary completism, his unforced, conversational tone favors the casual epigram: “East Berlin was like Disneyland for depressives,” he remarks at one point.
What begins as filmed diary transforms into a fascinating portrait of a decade of a culture in flux. The transition from the caged, art punk underground to the emancipated techno scene more or less reflects the final throes of Cold War paranoia, and by decade’s end the New Wave movement that Reeder had helped foster was being assimilated into the mainstream. When the film shows Bowie returning to Berlin for a 1988 concert in all his pop-star excess – towering ’80s mullet and red jumpsuit, descending onto stage a la Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer – it’s as though the alternate universes have reconvened; fittingly, he performs close enough to the Wall so that pop-starved East Berliners can hear the show.
That diffusion of the city’s tension that would come with the collapse of the Wall – presided over by the new Berlin’s unofficial mascot, David Hasselhoff – spells the natural end point to B-Movie’s story. Rather than be dismissive of the “boom boom” beats that would birth the city’s Love Parade, though, the film celebrates the evolution of the scene’s weirdo dance music into techno – and suggests a full-circle synchronicity with Manchester, by then experiencing their own rave-flavoured musical resurgence. In a rather wonderful moment, Reeder, sitting at a desk in full military uniform like a space-age lieutenant from a Z-grade Colonel Blimp, addresses a TV audience to explain this newfangled utopian “trance music”. It’s easy to imagine Reeder’s beloved Kraftwerk looking on from somewhere in their distant future, and smiling.