• Decoder (Vinegar Syndrome) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: August 27th, 2019.
    Director: Muscha
    Cast: FM Einheit, William Rice, Christiane Felscherinow, William S. Burroughs, Genesis P-Orridge
    Year: 1984
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    Decoder – Movie Review:

    Forged out of the German post-punk/industrial music scene of the early eighties, Decoder follows a young man named FM (FM Einheit, one-time percussionist of Einstürzende Neubauten) who learns that the ‘muzak’ being pumped into H Burgers, the fast food restaurant where he works, actually contains subliminal messages, the kind that keep the masses in check. He starts playing with this idea and finds that once he starts pumping in different kinds of music, he can get different reactions from the customers and people passing by the restaurant. He even goes so far as to start a riot by playing some aggressive industrial music over the restaurant’s PA system.

    Over time, FM’s use of music starts to pull the public out of their sleep and works towards building a revolution of sorts. FM’s girlfriend, Christiana (Christiane F. – aka Christiane Felscherinow -, whose story was turned into a movie of the same name by Uli Edel), is rather nonplussed about all of this but soon enough he’s gotten involved with a cult led by leader (Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle fame) intent on overthrowing the government using the weapons that FM has provided, all while a government agent named Jaeger (Bill Rice) closes in on them.

    Based on the work of William S. Burroughs (who has a brief supporting role in the film), Decoder is a slick looking film, and so too is it quite angry. Righteously angry, mind you, but angry nevertheless. Featuring scenes shot against the Berlin riots that took place during Ronald Regan’s visit in 1982 (complete with footage of some of the cast members wandering through the genuine chaos that took place during those riots), the film makes some well-placed jabs at consumer culture, the political establishment and, maybe more obviously than anything else, dull, lifeless music. It works quite well, blending elements of cyberpunk, science fiction, black comedy and violent action alongside a genuinely impressive soundtrack made up of contributions from Soft Cell, Psychic TV, Einstürzende Neubauten, and The The (What’s So Funny About… records released the soundtrack in 1985 on vinyl and it got a CD reissue in 1992).

    The cast do a pretty interesting job here. Einheit makes for an unusual but intriguing lead, he certainly looks the part and, in many ways, seems to just be playing himself. He and Christiane F. have a pretty effective chemistry here, they seem very comfortable together on screen, while Genesis P-Orridge’s utterly unique presence adds an additional element of weird to an already weird film. It’s neat to see Burroughs pop up in a small role, while Bill Rice is quite entertaining to watch as the corporate lackey out to put a stop to FM’s rebelliousness.

    The direction from the late Klaus Maeck, credited as Muscha, is solid. He manages to keep the movie going at a nice clip and does a fine job of balancing some impressive visual style with the ever-important musical score used in the picture. This was clearly shot on a modest budget but it’s a very good looking film, and one that holds up surprisingly well despite being very much a time capsule of sorts.

    Decoder – Blu-ray Review:

    Taken from a new 2k scan of the original 16mm negative, Decoder makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome on a 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in its original 1.33.1 aspect ratio. The results are beautiful – color reproduction is fantastic, black levels are nice and strong and the image is filmic throughout, showing virtually no print damage at all while retaining the expected amount of natural film grain you’d associate with a 16mm production. There’s strong depth, detail and texture to the picture throughout, even when a lot of colored lighting is used, and the image shows no evidence at all of any noticeable noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine the film looking any better than it does here.

    The German language DTS-HD mono track sounds really good. Optional English subtitles are provided for the German dialogue while a separate set of English SDH subtitles are also included (which, obviously, include dialogue translation as well as sound effects and music descriptions). The single channel mix sounds great. The music, obviously a very important part of this picture, has good depth to it and it’s considerably more immersive than you’d probably expect a single channel track to be. Balance is fine and there are no audible issues with any hiss or distortion to complain about.

    Extra features are plentiful, starting off with an all new audio commentary with critic, author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse (author of House Of Psychotic Women) that is essential listening for anyone with an interest in the film or the music scene that so clearly inspired it. She speaks about the true identity of Muscha, the involvement of Einstürzende Neubauten and FM Einheit in particular, the film’s Burroughs factor, William Rice’s involvement in the project, producer Klaus Maeck’s role in all of this and lots, lots more. She also does a very good job of laying out the socio-political landscape that the film plays off of. Janisse knows her stuff and delivers a lot of interesting information here but manages to do it without ever sounding pretentious or snooty. It’s a very good track that is well worth listening to.

    Moving on to the featurettes, we start with Sound As A Weapon, a brand new interview with writer/producer Klaus Maeck that clocks in at thirty-eight-minutes. Here he speaks about the influence of William S. Burroughs’ work on the film, some of the original ideas that they had for the film that wound up not being used, the use of music and muzak in the film, working with Einheit and Trimpop on the picture and quite a bit more. Also new to this release is a two-minute Locations Then And Now comparison that shows the locations used in the film against how they exist in the modern world.

    Vinegar Syndrome also includes a wealth of archival material, starting with an audio interview with Klaus Maeck that runs for just over forty-five-minutes. It covers a lot of the same ground as the newer video interview does but it’s nice to have it included here for posterity’s sake. From there, dig into five-minutes’ of excerpts from "Pirate Tape" – some interesting footage that Derek Jarman shot of William S. Burroughs on set with some appropriate music behind it. Ten-minutes’ worth of video footage from the 1982 Berlin Riots, some of which was spliced into the feature, is also included here. It’s interesting to see Einheit wandering through all of this as it is going off. There’s also a ten-minute mini-documentary on the Italian Decoder Collective that adds some welcome context to the goings on in the film and some of the ideas that it plays with.

    Rounding out the extras on the Blu-ray is a still gallery, an original trailer, menus and chapter selection.

    As this is a combo pack release, we also get a DVD version of the movie taken from the same new restoration and including the same extras. Vinegar Syndrome has also packaged this with some very cool reversible cover sleeve art.

    Decoder – The Final Word:

    Decoder has stood the test of time rather well. It’s as intriguing as it is entertaining, a nice mix of arthouse style and angry, antisocial leanings that never gets to heavy as to not entertain. A lot of the appeal of the film comes from its soundtrack but the performances are pretty solid and the visuals frequently impressive. Vinegar Syndrome has done an excellent job bringing this to Blu-ray with a beautiful presentation and a very strong selection of extra features. Recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized Decoder Blu-ray screen caps!