A-1 ‘B-Movie’ about 1980s Berlin

Docaviv’s music offerings include a firsthand account made up entirely of authentic footage of the underground post-punk scene in Berlin.

Mark Reeder in his studio. (photo credit: DEFMEDIA)
Mark Reeder in his studio.
(photo credit: DEFMEDIA)
The Docaviv International Film Festival (May 7 to 16) is clearly in robust health. Despite its advancing years – any cultural pursuit in this country that has survived the ravages of government budget cuts deserves to be respectfully categorized as a golden oldie – the event seems to be ever burgeoning. This year’s bunch of music-related documentaries, for example, is a bumper crop with, at least in marketing terms, the standout item being Cobain: Montage of Heck. However, while the portrait of the late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain is certainly a visual and sensory tour de force, in truth director-scriptwriter Brett Morgen went quite a way over the top with the presentation and really should have let the drama of the real-life story do the job.
Possibly, the most intriguing item for local music fans is the profile of notoriously inscrutable singer-songwriter Matti Caspi, while those looking for something more on the wacky side should have fun with 15 Corners of the World, which is dubbed a “mesmerizing audio-visual odyssey,” offering a portrait of “a remarkable artist, legendary Polish sound engineer Eugeniusz Rudnik.” The festival blurb attributes Rudnik with the birth of the revolutionary sounds of electro-acoustic music, no less.
But for me, the most arresting and gripping item in this year’s music category is the entertainingly entitled B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin, 1979-1989. The German (mostly English-language) film follows the real-life fortunes of Manchester, England, born musician and record producer Mark Reeder who, fed up with the rainy weather and the socioeconomic woes of his then depressed hometown, decided to relocate to West Berlin. In fact, Reeder had landed what he called his “dream job” in Manchester and worked at a record shop. But, as he put it, he had “unfortunately become infected” with the German equivalent of the angry raw sounds of the British punk bands of the time.
Once in Berlin, he initially found the western side of the divided city just as dreary but gradually began to discover the crazy, bare-knuckled local punk rock scene and fell in love with the hedonistic subculture in the last decade before the Berlin Wall came down.
B-Movie was directed by the triad of Jorge A. Hoppe, Heiko Lange and Klaus Maeck, with Reeder joining them for the scriptwriting. Like Reeder, 60-year-old Maeck was in Berlin for much of the decade in question.
“I came from Hamburg, but I lived in West Berlin in the second half of the 1980s,” Maeck recounts. “It was a bit of a crazy time, and there was a lot going on in the music scene there back then.”
Indeed, the arts scene was so wild and woolly, watching B-Movie you almost get the sense that you are witnessing footage of Berlin of the 1920s, when decadence was the creative order of day. In the 1980s, people flocked to Berlin from all over Europe and the US and elsewhere, drawn to its unfettered approach to life and the arts. Reeder certainly got into that, initially feeling his way gingerly, as if he had stumbled on some party as an uninvited guest. Before long, he became totally enthralled with the madcap characters that populated the city’s underground post-punk scene, going to places where probably no Mancunian had ventured before him.
The idea for the movie, says Maeck, came from Reeder himself, and the Englishman had plenty of the requisite raw material to push the project through the gears. For starters, B-Movie is very much about Reeder’s personal social cultural odyssey, and it is told with an endearing cocktail of the wide-eyed wonderment of a fascinated onlooker, while the main character eventually becomes part of the very fabric he had admired from afar.
What is most captivating about the film is the fact that it is made almost entirely of footage shot there and then. We are able to follow Reeder’s fortunes in Germany over the years, thanks to the footage of the time. Unlike many documentaries, this is not a reconstruction nor is it based on the recollections of a parade of interviewees who were there “at the time.”
“Mark was an absolute music enthusiast for the new music springing up in England like punk and, of course, electronic music because punk only came a little later,” explains Maeck. “Since we found some archive footage of him [in Berlin in the 1980s], we thought this would be an appropriate perspective [of] someone coming from a different country but with a similar atmosphere. Manchester was also very rundown and poor, like Berlin was in those days, but at the same time it was very creative, especially in music. This was a parallel.”
That was a good platform to start from and, over a period of three years, Reeder and the directorial team accumulated a fair bit of original film. The fact that the visual raw material came from all manner of sources and of all textures and technological evolutionary phases only serves to make the end product more endearing and give it a more authentic feel.
“There’s a lot of private film material from filmmakers of that time, mostly shot on Super 8 [Super 8 mm. film format, released by Eastman Kodak in 1965], some [older format] 16 mm. and then very early video formats. You have all kinds of material in there,” notes Maeck, who adds that the subject matter was always the team’s guiding light rather than ensuring that the visuals were presented in a clean, polished manner.
“Some material we only found on VHS, but we still wanted to use parts of that, too. After getting all the private stuff, we also looked through professional archives, so we compiled private stuff with TV material. Ninety-five percent of the film is archival,” he says.
That original sourcing ethos puts the viewer right in the thick of things. I lived in Manchester for most of the 1970s and visited Berlin – West and East – in the mid-1980s, and I can vouch for the genuineness of the B-Movie ambience. Reeder opens the film with a saying lifted out of the 1960s context, which suggests that “if you remember the ’80s, you probably weren’t there.” Reeder immediately adds he “was there.” That is very evident from the documentary, and this is as entertaining and as absorbing a documentary as you are ever likely to see.
Elsewhere on the music side of Docaviv, you can find works about the “Godfather of soul music” James Brown; a moving paean to late singer-songwriter Elliot Smith; the fashion revelation that grew out of hip hop; and a tribute to Rabbi David Buzaglo, who is called “Moroccan Jewry’s greatest liturgical poet of the 20th century.”
For more information about the Docaviv Festival, which will take place May 7-16 at various venues around Tel Aviv: www.Docaviv.co.il.