“Muzak is more than music.”
Decoder, a criminally under-seen Orwellian 1984 film, tells the story of the people’s revolution against an evil muzak corporation, beginning in the hallowed booths of uber-fast food chain H-Burger and spreading to the streets. In the world of Decoder, muzak is a sedative, an aural Valium, that controls the people’s creativity and emotions, as exemplified by the metaphor of the enforcement of junk food consumption.
Decoder stars German industrial musician F.M. Einheit (Einstürzende Neubauten), Lower East Side actor, artist, and scholar Bill Rice, and famous heroin addict and musician Christiane F. (Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo) and features cameos by author and artist William S. Burroughs and musician and artist Genesis P-Orridge (Psychic TV, Throbbing Gristle). While doused with art house affectation, Decoder delineates a relatively cohesive narrative of corporatism, control, and the power of noise.
Loosely based on ideas plucked from Burroughs’ 1971 essay collection, The Electronic Revolution, Decoder was encoded by a West German filmmaking collective consisting of: writer, editor, and producer Klaus Maeck, director, writer, editor, and producer Muscha, writer, editor, and producer Volker Schäfer, and Trini Trimpop. Lensed by Johanna Heer, the film’s blunted, monochromatic color schemes — primarily red, green, and CRT blue — demarcate character, mood, and motivation. Einheit’s character, FM, is arguably the film’s protagonist, a disaffected noise hacker-punk on a mission to infect muzak with noise. Of all the characters, FM is the least well-developed, but his haircut and percussive talents almost make up for the lack of character development.
Christiane F.’s character, Christiana, is a peepshow dancer-slash-herpetologist who simultaneously exudes a sense of preternatural wisdom and psychic human frailty. Rice’s character, Jager, works for the muzak corporation as a Raymond Chandler-channeling detective and on-call hit man. Genesis P-Orridge portrays the high priest of the black noise-pirates. In a pivotal scene, FM stumbles into the pirates’ warehouse and communes with him. The high priest advises, “Information is like a bank. Our job is to rob that bank.” Burroughs is featured in FM’s dreams and as an electronics equipment shop proprietor, who gifts FM with a disassembled cassette, advising that it is all he needs. Decoder bears the marks of a ramshackle production setup, but the film’s narrative is enhanced by its lack of smoothness and Hollywood conventions.
The filmmakers’ use of the instability between the German nations in combination with Burroughs’ theories of information are typified by the use of archival riot footage in Decoder. Having planned to plant tape recorders amongst protesters of Reagan’s state visit, they quickly learned that said protesters were already armed with cassette players loaded with war zone soundscapes of helicopters, gunfire, and so on. In 1984, Maeck told Vague magazine, “They put tape recorders in windows, and if you’re in the street and you hear all these noises and you don’t know where it’s coming from and you think where is that fucking helicopter, where is that shooting coming from? People got confused and angrier. It actually worked. They even busted tape recorders. They confiscated 200 tape recorders. It was really funny.”
What really sets Decoder apart from similarly themed filmic meditations on control, information wars, and revolution is the brilliant soundtrack. Sample the soundtrack in the audio section, below. And, if you’re in the mood, watch the entire film, in the video section. Scroll on, comrades.
Muzak for Frogs – Dave Ball/Genesis P-Orridge:
Dreams – Dave Ball/Genesis P-Orridge: