Throughout history, there are certain times and certain places that become cultural epicentres and attract the free-spirited and creative souls that subsequently use the energy and diversity to produce something special. These places may also have other reasons for standing out at different times throughout our timeline. But few have the story and history of Berlin, capital of Germany, or the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. And few would probably want such a history, such are the polar extremes of the events that have taken place in that city in the last 100 years. However, despite such political, historical and cultural turmoil, Berlin has risen once more as a triumphant city of freedom, democracy, peace and love.
Heart of the Third Reich during the reign of Adolf Hitler, it ultimately succumbed to the ravages of war, as Stalin’s troops advanced from the east, and Allied forces finally reached their goal, almost a year after landing on the Normandy beaches. Like many once great and noble German cities, it suffered massive and, in many cases, irreparable damage at the hands of the RAF and USAF bombing runs. When Hitler finally took his own, miserable life on April 30th 1945, mere tiny pockets of Nazi resistance remained and were soon eradicated by the Russians, British and Americans, amongst others.
What remained of the city, as well as the nation as a whole, was virtually non-existent, such was the pounding it had taken. The nation needed reformation and the Allies, led by Britain, France, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union, decided that to aid in its rebuilding, the nation and its capital should be divided into four zones. Germany itself was, by and large, split in two, with Britain, France and America running the West, and Russia controlling the East. However, Berlin was located in northeastern Germany on the banks of Rivers Spree and Havel, and was split in almost identical fashion. East Berlin became the capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR). West Berlin remained as a West German exclave. Years of mistrust, suspicion and disagreement between the Russians and the Western Allies came to a head in 1961 when the USSR ordered a wall to be built around the entire western side of Berlin, cutting it off from the rest of the world, effectively, and tearing apart friends and families.
They say that placing limitations on creativity only serves to increase it, as people try to do as much as they can with as little as they have. This belief could not be more apt for Berlin, hence the brief history lesson above. After the completion of the wall, West Berlin was cut off in many ways. A microcosm of Western society, trying hard to live and breathe and exist, but hemmed in on all sides by physical and mental walls. Those that dare cross the borders faced death, capture and/or torture, but equally, those from the East, desperate to escape the Communist extremism, sought safe passage to the west side of the city, many times aided and abetted by their West Berlin brothers and sisters. And all the while, in the West, as if to thumb their nose at their Communist oppressors on the other side, a city of youthful, post-war baby boomers grew up free but not free. A decade or so later, West Berlin would become a haven for artists and creatives from all walks of life. Music, fashion, literature and visual art all blossomed in a bohemian, care-free culture that decided to scream an almighty “fuck you” to those that kept them penned in. But it was in the mid-to-late 70s that Berlin gained a new temporary resident who would draw many more in to its barricaded culture.
Bowie, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, driven by his incessant and indefatigable desire to further his art, arrived in Berlin in 1976 in an attempt to escape his soaring cocaine habit and imminent spiral into what may well have been a far earlier death. Despite West Berlin being the coke capital of Europe, it was in this city that he weaned himself off the narcotics and produced what many believe are his three greatest moments on record, albeit that they weren’t all recorded in Berlin. The so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ are, without question some of his finest work, and undoubtedly some of the greatest albums ever made, and their impact was felt not only in music, but in art and fashion too. Bowie was now an icon; a visionary leader. And what Bowie did, others wanted to do too. What Bowie wore, others wanted to wear. And where Bowie lived and worked, others wanted to reside there too, hoping that whatever had inspired the great man, might inspire them also.
And so it was that a scrawny Mancunian, manager of the Virgin Records store in England’s capital of the North-West, decided that Berlin was the place to be. How different could it be to post-war Manchester, with its bombed out streets and factories, languishing in 70s Great Britain and subject to the “winter of discontent”, three day weeks and constant power cuts? Mark Reeder decided to move to Berlin. So he did. And, to this day, it is where he remains, now one of it’s most iconic adopted sons.
And that, my dear reader (no pun intended), brings us to the opening of “B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989”. Little did Mark know that Bowie had left 6 months previously, and by the time he did realise, he was entrenched and living with friends or in squats, both of which were readily available at that time. And so Mark decided to make the best of it, and B-Movie tells this tale over a ten year period, covering some of the most amazing and deeply creative times in the city’s illustrious history by way of huge amounts of archive footage, most of which comes from Mark’s personal collection. In fact, it was from this collection that B-Movie grew. Directors Jörg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck und Heiko Lange had been given a box of old VHS tapes that Mark had stashed in his loft. The original plan had been to make a fairly generic movie about Berlin around the late 70s and early 80s but as soon as they saw the material that Mark had unknowingly amassed, they knew that his story would be the thread upon which their account of that time would be hung. And Mark’s story is indeed a rich one. Having been part of the group of friends that were to become Joy Division and New Order, Mark was already savvy about the music industry. Once in Berlin, he threw himself into the music scene and befriended and even managed some of the most popular underground acts of the day, such as ‘Malaria!’, a female alternative electronic band whose influence spread far and wide within the walled city and beyond.
Even footage that had been thought lost, of a young Muriel Grey, accompanying Mark on a tour of West Berlin and its rich culture for UK music programme, “The Tube”, was found, and from this, properly archived material at Channel 4 was discovered that had previously been thought lost forever. Equally enthralling are the scenes featuring Nick Cave, Mark’s one-time flat mate in Berlin. And for the bits that weren’t captured on film? The directors managed to find Mark’s doppelgänger who carefully reprised some of the early moments of Mark’s experience. So authentic was his likeness that it was often impossible to tell what was original footage and what was recreated!
But it is the fall of the wall, in 1989, and the reunification of Berlin, and Germany two years later, that brings this tale to its conclusion. A conclusion that actually comes across as terribly sad. It felt as if, in that brief moment, the life blood of West Berlin spilled on to the streets and into its sewers. leaving behind a cultural void that would end up being filled with commercialism and a thousand brands and “me-too’ establishments. Music was changing, restrictions were lifted and almost overnight, everything that made West Berlin unique seemed to blow away in the breeze of freedom. I sat there, watching scenes of joy and celebration, scenes I had witnessed on TV news from the comfort of my English bedsit, and felt terribly sad indeed. One particular poignant scene shows West Berliners “celebrating the wall’s 25th birthday, with the distinct impression being felt that they had, by this time, embraced the wall as simply a part of their lives and did not want to see it go. How true that might have been!
And that’s where I will leave my description of the movie, lest I spoil the immense treat that is on offer once the opening images flicker on to the screen. This film is an epic tale of one man and one city, both the major stars of this production. I’ve never witnessed such a documentary that can rely on so much authentic and genuine footage taken by normal people on the ground, particularly from this era. We live in a society today where this is common place. Everyone has a camera capable of capturing almost anything instantly, but before the late 70s, most film was either professionally captured, or was on small reels of silent Super 8, captured only by those who had the unwieldy equipment and the money to buy film on a regular basis. But by 1979, video cameras were becoming increasingly prevalent and B-Movie is a benefactor of this turn in culture. The directors have spliced together visuals to Mark’s superbly understated and witty narration so well that one does completely feel like one has experienced everything in the film first hand. Over a week after seeing the film, I am only now emerging from a state of mind where I honestly felt I had been there, with Mark gently but firmly guiding me through the city and its numerous delights.
Of course, such a film would be nothing without a suitable soundtrack and B-Movie does not disappoint. Mixing vast numbers of tracks from the era with some new work too, such as the incredibly cinematic and minimalist Westbam track, “You Need The Drugs”, featuring Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler on vocals, the soundtrack is not only a great accompaniment to the film, but a superb snapshot of the richly diverse and utterly unique music scene of the time. Joy Division, Die Unbekannten, Shark Vegas, Die Toten Hosen, Velvet Condom, Malaria!, Edgar Froese and many more grace this wonderful sonic soundscape. Given Mark’s work in the 5.1 arena, I had sorely hoped for the soundtrack to get the multi-channel treatment, but sadly, the label behind it felt that no-one would be interested. Quite bizarre, given the resurgence in multi-channel audio of late. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear Joy Division in 5.1? Mark tells me he pushed for it, but to no avail. So, please feel free to bombard Edel with your requests.
I had the great fortune of being asked to a screening of the film at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts, where I met with Mark later and had a good natter. Mark and I have been friends, albeit mostly online, for a number of years now, working on things like my Reason Song Challenges from a few years back, and so it was delightful to finally get to hook up in person. And to spend time with the man, straight after his tale had unfolded on the screen in front of me earlier, was a real treat, especially as he hinted at a possible sequel that he (jokingly?) said would be called E-Movie and cover his life of the following ten years, that saw him continue his entrepreneurial winning streak and almost single-handedly bring Trance and Techno music to the masses via his club nights and record label. One to watch out for! And we were in esteemed company too, with Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris of New Order joining us, and I had a lovely chat with Neil Tennant before the film, discussing Bowie and Berlin. A bit of a fan-boy moment, especially when Mark Farrow, he of many PSB artworks fame, arrived too.
But aside from my musical and artistic heroes showing up, the film was an incredible journey and insight into a culture that remained almost publicly secret for many years. It was incredibly informative and I came away wanting to watch it all over again, simply because I knew there would be more to absorb. And luckily for us all, B-Movie is already out on DVD & Blu Ray. Amazon now seem to be stocking it in their UK store, having previously only stocked it in there German outlet. That also includes the soundtrack album which can now seemingly be bought across Europe from Amazon. But with the power of the internet, you can easily procure any or all of these items at very reasonable prices from many web-based stores, particularly in Germany. And if you really want to indulge, there is a fantastic box-set that contains the DVD, the Blu Ray (both with English and German languages), the CD of the soundtrack, as well as the double vinyl version, a tote bag (or should that be a ‘Toten Hosen’ bag?), a 220+ page book, some badges and other paraphernalia, but this does seem limited to German outlets. Look around and you can find this selling for anything between €90 and €100, which equates to somewhere between £70 and £75 GBP.
If you are in any way into the Berlin scene of the 70s and 80s, or if you are interested in musical history and nostalgia, and you fancy learning some new stuff, B-Movie delivers on all counts. Better still, you will end up making a “friend” with Mark Reeder, whose honest, candid and touching story is both endearing as much as it is fascinating. It made me wish that in my late teens, I’d had the balls to do something similar and break out into the unknown. B-Movie will leave an indelible mark on your understanding of late 20th century history and will go down, in my opinion, as a definitive historical record of a time and a place that, for a while, was more alive than any place on earth and reached out far beyond the confines of the barricades that surrounded it.