An interview with Klaus Maeck
by Christophe Becker
“We will rise up to take back the screen.
Death to those who support mainstream cinema!”
John Waters, Cecil B. Demented, 2000
Christophe Becker: Can you elaborate on early cinema memories, how did you discover cinema?
One of the first films that fascinated me so much I went to see it 5 times was actually a French film from 1973: Themroc by Claude Faraldo. It was a compelling anarchic comedy, with Michel Piccoli as the main actor wandering through the film without saying anything. Not a single word is spoken, only sounds remotely reminiscent of the French language, besides that only moans and grunts. When we left the theater we started moaning and grunting too — it became a cult film in our circles.
I had a similar experience with another film, also in 1973: The Holy Mountain (La montaña sagrada) by Alejandro Jodorowsky. A German critic described it as “a stunning, mysticistic work full of cynicism and debauched imagery.” Adding “Pictorial, phantasmagoric imagination and drug-influenced creativity fuse here into a grotesque circus of exquisite curiosities and religious allusions.”
Besides so many other spectacular images there are scenes with toads in various uniforms attacking and fighting each other — only many years after the making of Decoder I realized that this must have been the inspiration for the frogs in my film, as I never had any specific affection for them before.
From Kenneth Anger I learned that in movies everything is allowed and you don’t have to follow conventions to create something spectacular. I also fell in love with Luis Buñuel, I guess I have seen almost all of his films.
I was completely bedazzled by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), also one of my all-time favorites, I’ve seen it many times. That’s my kind of science fiction, like 20 minutes into the future, an ingenious mixture of film noir and dystopia. I would like to mention the greatest scriptwriter in my opinion: Guillermo Arriaga who wrote masterpieces such as [Alejandro Iñárritu’s] Amores Perros , 21 Grams  and Babel ; Arriaga has also published some crass novels.
C. B.: Did you know the anecdote behind the title Blade Runner at the time? That R. Scott preferred to use the title of a text by Burroughs instead of the original Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick?
K. M.: Yes, I heard about it, but was never sure.
C. B.: German cinema is little known in France — except for German Expressionism. Were German directors significant to your education, I’m thinking of the Neuer Deutscher Film…?
K. M.: No, not as much as the films I mentioned before. Wait — that’s not true, because the first name that comes to mind is Werner Herzog with his spectacular jungle films starring Klaus Kinski: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). These films, however, rather fueled my travel fever, not my film ideas. But this extraordinary director is still active today and it’s actually worth seeing all of his films, even if they never reach the level of madness of these two.
And yes, certainly, I admire some (although not many) films by Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) and The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund, 1977) are both visually stunning and wonderfully cast descriptions of their time.
Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973) is a fascinating mixture of crime, adventure and science fiction, and plays with different levels of reality. The story’s about corruption and manipulation, but also possible forms of resistance. Just my thing. And I would like to mention Klaus Lemke, a director who became short-term famous with his film Rocker (1972). Lemke was considered a rebel among German directors, he rebelled against the cinematic mainstream and refused fundings, as “free money spoils creativity,” he said. He mostly worked with amateurs whom he discovered in cafés or on the street and often hired on the spot. Some of his discoveries even became German television stars. He just recently died.
C. B.: You’re saying Herzog’s movies prompted you to travel…?
K. M.: Well, after seeing both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo I wanted to leave for the South American jungles. But I didn’t really make it far there — too many mosquitos for my taste I realized. I loved travelling across Peru, Colombia and Mexico, I loved studying their cultures and traditions. In my forthcoming book you can find some stories I wrote about these trips, however, at this time I’m still looking for a publisher.
C. B.: Did you ever talk about these trips with William Burroughs? If Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo were indeed shot in Peru, Burroughs had already travelled there decades earlier. He had travelled across Colombia and Mexico as well. It seems to me you could not miss that correspondence — not to mention he was fascinated by the local culture, including Mayan codices and psychedelics.
K. M.: So am I, I’m still fascinated by these ancient cultures. My first travels to Mexico in the late 70’s led me to some spectacular places like the Palenque ruins in Chiapas and some dreamlike spots on the Pacific coast (all of them now overloaded with tourists). And yes, of course I studied the many letters and texts Burroughs wrote about his expeditions. The codices and related legends occupy me to this day. I am sure I talked to Burroughs about my travels, since he wrote me a dedication in one of his books mentioning the need for travelling. On his porch in front of his house [in Lawrence, Kansas] he had a carved stone saying: “It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.” A quote from his book The Adding Machine , I found out later; this stone inscription stuck well in my head.
C. B.: Funny you should mention Herzog and Fassbinder as well as Jodorowsky. All of them insist on the fact that movies are also prone to falsifying reality, to instigating a game with the audience, choosing to believe or not what’s on the screen. I’m thinking of the ending of The Holy Mountain when the character of the alchemist (Jodorowsky himself) asks to “zoom back camera” and reveals the film crew at work. Am I being silly here?
K. M.: Not silly, I love it. That’s what I love about films…
C. B.: Listening to French critic Pacôme Thiellement, I thought you’d feel closer to someone like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A movie like The Third Generation (1979), especially, comes to mind when compared to Decoder.
K. M.: It’s not that I didn’t like Fassbinder, he never was mainstream, that’s what I loved about him. However, his films never had the same impact as the others I mentioned. It seems I always loved the extreme, although today I would mind the audience more. I hate it when I work on a film which usually takes 3-5 years (of my life) and almost nobody sees it. Decoder is a rare example, when people still show interest, even enthusiasm, 40 years after its making.
C. B.: Did you have favorite theaters in Hamburg?
K. M.: The oldest arthouse cinema called Abaton which is still active today. It was around the time the Neuer Deutscher Film started in the 70’s.
C. B.: When I first saw Decoder I immediately thought of two other movies: Alphaville by Jean-Luc Godard (Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, 1965) and Dr. M by Claude Chabrol (1990), a film he shot in Berlin as a tribute to Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. Science fiction that transcends the genre. Did the French New Wave ever play a part in your training — from an artistic or technical point of view?
K. M.: No, since I had no artistic or technical training in a conventional sense. No art or film school, just learning on the job. But of course I would not deny that a film like Alphaville made a great impression on me. And now, since you’re asking, I can even imagine that Eddie Constantine was a role model for Decoder‘s agent played by Bill Rice — it just seems logical and likely to me right now. A really great film and my favorite by Godard. I like the intelligent mixture of film noir and science fiction, the film shows a dystopian future where machines take control — very up-to-date, like an early statement against todays’ danger of AI. Also similar to Blade Runner, these films show that the “fiction” in science fiction is not so far away at all. The present is already full of horrors, whether through the supervision of machines or, in Decoder, through manipulation by music.
Chabrol’s Dr. M I only saw much later. I believe I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stick, as the original is so powerful.
C. B.: Decoder is credited as your first film — with Muscha, Volker Schäfer and Trini Trimpop. How did your (then) lack of training influence its conception?
K. M.: Well, we just wrote the script and developed the film without considering the conventional patterns, rules and formats for feature films, our intuition was paramount. I guess that is one reason why the film is quite unique but at the same time not so easy to comprehend. The biggest mistake we made was spending too little time on developing intelligent dialogues. We assumed that this would mostly arise out of the situation and let the actors improvise. I regret that today — except of course for the important “influencers” Burroughs and P-Orridge who contributed a lot with their improvised monologues.
C. B.: It seems to me Decoder also serves as a manifesto. The presence of Burroughs as well as his discourse with regard to amateurism hints at a determination to make art — notwithstanding schools, rules or traditions. If the movie acts as a warning, as you mentioned earlier, it also coaxes viewers into thinking outside the box and conjuring up new forms. I tend to think the foundation of Decoder, Rivista Internazionale Underground, as well as the release of Decoder as a visual novel by Remute provide proof of that.
K. M.: I agree — and I’m really proud that this film triggered a lot of other projects. But you can’t really plan something like that. We were lucky enough to have a creative team and great protagonists who not only captured the zeitgeist, but also dared to take an anxious look into the future, i.e. into today, as a result the film feels better accepted at present.
C. B.: When we talked a few years back now [in 2019], you told me Burroughs and Balch’s Towers Open Fire influenced your editing the film. Were you aware at the time of other movies using the cut-up technique, like Performance (1970) by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg?
K. M.: I believe I only learned about that much later. But I was a fan of Roeg’s films, especially The Man Who Fell To Earth . However, nobody in our crew had any cinematic education and we had no model or template when we edited Decoder. Well, it’s too bad we cannot ask Muscha anymore, he might have had different answers.
C. B.: Were there differences of opinion with Muscha on set? Or with any other member of the crew for that matter? What about Schäfer? Trini Trimpop?
K. M.: Not with Muscha. But I think we all had our differences with [cinematographer] Johanna [Heer] who operated the camera. Her lighting style was very time-consuming and she was very much into details; we were impatient and thought she was exaggerating… Remember our style was more punk and impulsive whereas she wanted to be a master in her field.
C. B.: Five people are credited as having edited Decoder. A number that’s oddly suspicious. Namely you, Muscha, Volker Schäfer with Jonathon Braun and Eva-Maria Will. Only Braun and Will are credited as professional editors, with Braun working quite extensively for television. Can you comment on the editing process?
K. M.: I have no idea who Jonathan Braun is, where did you find that name? Other than him, all of the people you mentioned were involved in the editing process. Muscha and myself, primarily. Since we couldn’t afford to pay normal rates we had to limit our editing to nights and weekends when we used a free editing room in Düsseldorf. We worked like this for almost half a year and ended up with a 120-minute version, which was much too long for marketing. We had no clue what to delete or shorten, so we asked a professional editor for help. Her prerequisite was to be left alone entirely; she knew there would be discussions and fights over the scenes she had to delete or shorten otherwise. That was Eva-Maria Will, she usually worked for TV. I believe none of us was really happy — imagine the (more than) 30 minutes she cut out, and we did not keep that material, it’s lost forever! But we ultimately had a final version just in time to enter the Berlinale in 1984.
C. B.: To answer your question Braun is credited on both imdb and mubi. Also when Decoder was screened at the Film Fest Gent last October. It’s likely they cut and pasted the original imdb page without checking the film crew and continue to do so — or maybe he is a burroughsian agent provocateur.
K. M.: Well, I just asked IMDB to correct that.
C. B.: I find it surprising that you got rid of the 30 minutes that were edited from Decoder. Films like Commissioner of Sewers or B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 clearly signal how much you value archives. Do you remember what scenes were cut?
K. M.: You are absolutely right. But at the time we didn’t think that way. We shot on 16mm film, so I guess we didn’t know what to do with the deleted footage or whether we would ever go back to it. No, I don’t even remember what we deleted exactly, we were probably only shortening the scenes, because as far as I remember nothing from the script is missing. Now that you mention it, I never tried to look for that lost footage… You know it was 40 years ago and for some decades there was not much interest in the film. Only now, to my surprise, I have so many international requests — you are not innocent here. Well, maybe there is still a chance to retrieve that treasure?
C. B.: If memory serves you included footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the film.
K. M.: Yes, on some of the many monitors in Jaegers’ control room. We thought it would suit the beginning and the end of the film really well, that it would visually underline Jaeger’s deadly mission. We also wanted to make it clear from the get-go, or at least offer hints, that we wanted to cut up reality — and in Metropolis control and surveillance are important topics as well.
C. B.: There’s a scene that’s oddly disturbing in the movie, when Jaeger (Bill Rice) watches violent snuff-like movies… How did you shoot it? I still wonder how they let you get away with it.
K. M.: I am surprised myself that we never had any trouble with these scenes. In the UK we had to cut out the apparent killing of the frog by FM Einheit (a frog we never killed), but the opening of a human skull, the skull blowjob and the bloody castration never were a problem. We did not shoot these scenes. Sleazy, alias Peter Christopherson from Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, worked as a special effect technician for films and advertising and contributed some of the fake snuff videos, I believe it was kind of a private hobby. Another clip was stolen from an SPK video.
C. B.: Are you done with sci fi? Are there any recent sci fi movies or directors you enjoy? (I still believe you should watch Bertrand Mandico’s films, by the way).
K. M.: No, I’m still curious about the genre. I will check out this Mandico guy. The most spectacular and intelligent sci fi movies I have seen recently are from the British Netflix series Black Mirror. It’s so much better than silly blockbusters like the Matrix follow ups or [Denis Villeneuve’s] Blade Runner 2049. Those were very disappointing.
C. B.: You’ve recently produced films by Fatih Akin. How did you evolve as a producer since your first movie?
K. M.: The last film I produced with Akin was The Cut , but we split before the actual shooting. This was more than 10 years ago now. Since 2012 I am a one-man-company again with Interzone Pictures. I still have no clue why Akin suddenly decided that he wanted to continue on his own, I guess he absolutely didn’t want anyone to interfere with his work. Before that we also produced other directors — when we liked the script or the director’s style. If you have a production company with several employees, however, you are also economically dependent on always having several projects on the line. I was responsible for those — like [Studio Braun’s] Fraktus — Das letzte Kapitel der Musikgeschichte  and [Xiaolu Guo’s] UFO in Her Eyes . Plus Fatih had time to develop new scripts.
I gave up on the idea of becoming a film producer when I realized how difficult it is to survive by making non-commercial movies. After Decoder I continued to write scripts but I did not get far… I didn’t get any fundings, and you depend on them if you’re not backed by an investor or a production company. At the same time my work with musicians widened. After distributing independent records and organizing concerts and festivals I became a music publisher, founding Freibank Music Publishing with Mark Chung from Einstürzende Neubauten. Always one foot in the film business — producing some video clips and documentaries.
I used to compile CDs with suitable music for films and distributed them to professionals. That’s how I met Fatih in the early 2000s. For his film Head On [Gegen die Wand, 2004] he asked me to be his music supervisor and then, working together really close, we became friends and decided to found our own production company: Corazon International. To our surprise Head On won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2004. I was catapulted back into the film business, my dream came true. As you know, in the following years we produced many of Fatih’s best films.
Winning the Golden Bear didn’t make it easy for us. The expectations for his next film were huge. That’s why we decided to do a smaller film, to have time to think and develop the next big feature film. We did the documentary Crossing the Bridge — The Sound of Istanbul  and I became quite familiar with the Turkish music scene. His following feature, The Edge of Heaven [Auf der anderen Seite, 2007], is my absolute favorite by the way. It has a sophisticated script (which won the Best Screenplay award in Cannes in 2007) and a great cast, including the comeback of Hanna Schygulla. The most successful film we did together was Soul Kitchen in 2009 as it was a popular comedy.
After our split the doors to big money were shut. Without a talent like Akin involved it is so much harder to raise a budget. I produced some smaller films before I got the chance to kick ass again with B-Movie. Since I lived in Berlin for some years in the late 80’s I knew a lot of musicians and filmmakers and was able to collect authentic footage from that time, which makes this film so special. I could even use some footage from Decoder as we shot the Reagan riots in Berlin at the time… and again in my latest film Alles Ist 1 Ausser der 0, I found suitable footage in Decoder to use once more… It is all connected I tell you.