Einstürzende Neubauten represent everything that was great about the post-punk era, a savage union of aesthetic violence and intellectual refinement that seemed plentiful as the air in the late 70s and early 80s. A foundational band in the lineage of industrial music, Neubauten took the burgeoning genre to its most literal extreme, incorporating scrap material, homemade instruments, and power tools into their work. The results were often predictably brutalizing, yet there was also a poetic quality to frontman Blixa Bargeld’s lyrics that lent the songs a kind of malefic beauty (provided you could speak German, or otherwise obtain English translations of the lyrics, that is).
During their 1986 tour in support of their third album Halber Mensch, the group collaborated with experimental filmmaker Sogo Ishii to create a document of their visit to Japan. You couldn’t ask for a more harmonious meeting of the minds.
Einstürzende Neubauten literally translates to “collapsing new buildings,” but its connotations in German are far more subversive. The Germans use the word neubauten to describe architecture that sprang up in the wake of World War II, versus altbauten, the older (and often sturdier and more beautiful) buildings from the pre-war period. The band’s name, therefore, signifies the implosion of the new order, the collapse of a flimsy myth of progress over a tragic history. Sogo Ishii, meanwhile, came to prominence in the early 80s through a series of guerilla sci-fi films that helped define cyberpunk cinema in Japan. The movement’s Western counterparts — novelists like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson and filmmakers like Ridley Scott (with Bladerunner) or Paul Verhoven (with Robocop) — spun futures in which a declining US was being eclipsed by megalithic corporations and an influx of Eastern culture, where scrappy computer hackers pulled noirish capers in virtual realms of ones and zeros that we would later come to know as the internet. Japanese cyberpunk was often more dystopian in vision. In place of sprawling megacities, we have post-industrial wastelands roamed by gangs and outlaws. In place of cybernetic prostheses and implants that blur the distinction between human and machine, we have invasive technologies that corrupt and pervert the human body.
Ishii is best known internationally for Burst City, a punk rock musical about biker gangs resisting the construction of a Yakuza-funded power plant in their part of town. One can see echoes of his earlier film — this fusion of post-apocalyptic science fiction and music video sensibilities — in Halber Mensch. In just under an hour, the film flits from staged performance to music video to documentary to live concert footage and back, without really batting an eyelash. Except for a chunk of footage toward the end from a soundcheck and actual live performance at a Japanese club, most of the action takes place in an abandoned foundry. The stark backdrop of industrial ruin and desolation fits nicely into the aesthetic universes of both parties. Neubauten look perfectly at home on that dirt floor amid the scarred pillars, mechanical waste, and shattered windows, while Ishii brings an atavistic beauty to the proceedings by intercutting the band’s performance with images of scrapyards, feeding protozoa, and buildings being demolished.
The footage of Neubauten performing is arresting and captures the brute physicality of those early shows. You see Alexander Hacke flailing at his guitar; F.M. Einheit, N.U. Unruh, and Mark Chung crouched over their homemade instruments like mad scientists, often scrambling from station-to-station mid song; and, of course, a wildly coifed Blixa Bargeld strutting from one end of his rude stage to the other like some unholy combination of Mick Jagger and Darth Vader. Still, the film’s indisputable high point would have to be the videos for its two-song centerpiece “Halber Mensch” and “Z.N.S.”
The title track is one of Neubauten’s most lovely and terrifying compositions, a stunning four-and-a-half-minute a capella arrangement about the hobbling of man by a technocratic society. It’s a theme that clearly resonated with Ishii and his contemporaries, and it inspired some of the film’s most terrifying imagery. Einheit watches his leg get devoured by worms, while other band members wander through a dilapidated labyrinth, encountering a series of grotesque Butoh dancers: two men bound together by their heads in a wire lattice, another leering pair lumbering around in an upright 69 position, and finally a ghostly figure with a feeding tube clenched in its teeth.
On “Z.N.S.,” this final figure is joined by a host of pale men and women clad in loincloths and scrap metal. The dancers stagger into formation around him, their movements tortured and spastic. They jerk and writhe to the song’s emaciated dance beat with faces contorted into grins of malevolent joy. Gradually, their dancing devolves into combat, with performers shoving, wrestling, grappling for one another’s throat. When the lead female dancer breaks the fourth wall and begins creeping toward the camera, one can’t help but feel a surge of fear, as though we were interlopers at some demonic revel who have drawn the attention of our hosts.
Aside from being a kick-ass document of Neubauten in their prime, Halber Mensch helps to underscore just how influential the band has been. It’s easy to see that their sonic progeny include a broad swath of artists, ranging from industrial noise punks like Missing Foundation to the more populist, family-friendly fare like Blue Man Group. What the film also demonstrates is how quietly the band’s visuals have been appropriated by their more famous (and often markedly less talented) successors. Rammstein seems to have inherited Neubauten’s love of setting shit on fire, and I’d be surprised if Floria Sigismondi hadn’t seen the “Z.N.S.” segment prior to directing Marilyn Manson’s video for “The Beautiful People.” Don’t let that put you off, though. Halber Mensch still looks and sounds as fresh and invigorating as it did those nigh-30 years ago when it was first released
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about Sogo Ishii and Japanese cyberpunk, I’d recommend checking out Mark Player’s enlightening essay on the subject for Midnight Eye. Happy viewing.