One can see surprise on singer Blixa Bargeld's face as he acknowledges Einstürzende Neubauten's 20th anniversary as a functioning music group – quite a feat, considering the German band's original roots, according to bassist Alexander Hacke, began by taking industrial sounds and creating music, and then tearing it to pieces to where it's no longer music.
The hour-long documentary could have been a bit longer – the one area it skimps on is presenting more, if not longer performances of the band – but it's counterbalanced by a ridiculous level of archival footage from old interviews (including a great bit where each member gives his own interpretation of the group's German name), promo tours, music videos and film extracts (including Nihil oder Alle Zeit der Welt), their appearance in the play Andi, and new interviews with current and ex-band members (F.M. Einheit, alias Mufti) reflecting on the group's perhaps inevitable shift from performing clamorous, improvised chaos to more structured and written melodic works – some carried by poetic lyrics.
The beauty of this production is how directors Christian Beetz and Birgit Herdlitschke document the band with a blend of respect, fan fascination, and acknowledgement that some of their concepts were quite nuts.
Bargeld and N.U. Unruh's formation of Einstürzende Neubauten [EN], for example, included a ‘live' performance of wailing electric guitar and metal cacophony (literally) in a dirty pocket under a Berlin Autobahn. A later montage covering the West Berlin youth protests is punctuated by a now-larger band at a caféhaus, where they deliberately play like amateurs, and croon the phrase “Wir konnen nicht spielen” ('we cannot play') over and over again, while prewar adults gaze in horror.
Bassist Alexander Hacke also admits he felt the band's popularity reached a level of absurdity when their Japanese tour drew thousands screaming teenage girls who'd just experience the more soothing music of Spandau Ballet and bubbleheadedness of Duran Duran – music and performance styles quite antithetical to EN.
That EN became one of Germany 's cultural ambassadors is just as puzzling to the musicians; they never seemed to feel comfortable with that label, and often eschewed campaigns and publicity tours that could have expanded their penetration into more mainstream arenas. The doc's directors also assert EN's move to the British indie label Some Bizzare gave them the freedom to craft more personal albums and benefit from the label's publicity-minded bigwig, Stevo.
Listen with Pain doesn't gloss over or censor anything, and the band's disdain for Stevo is raw and still ongoing: they claim to have never seen a cent from any album sales; even up to the present time. Stevo himself remains elusive on camera, though his singular interview is a highlight: dressed like a British businessman with paper under arm, he stands in a cutaway subway car, gripping a strap, and pretending to sway from non-existent rail motions while reflecting on his relationship with EN.
Ex-tour managers also chime in their assessment of specific band members, and there's some colourful portraits of Bargeld's distant persona, and the special precautions undertaken by percussionist N.U. Unruh (his alias is a cheeky play on letters and words that translate as ‘only unrest') before getting on a plane. Nick Cave also offers some hysterical anecdotes of his first impressions of Bargeld's singing (‘like a dying cat' he says) and the professional relationship he's maintained with Bargeld, with the latter performing moody, self-reflective guitar work as a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The lack of complete song extracts is somewhat made up by a great closing montage, which intercuts disparate performances of “Letztes Biest” to trace the group's evolution though a single song: from a beautiful backlit stage in 2000 to a live performance with a metal sander shooting sparks at adoring fans, it's a succinct statement of how creative ideas can emerge over time from pretentious, arty beginnings. (The best capper is a clip of young Bargeld in 1982. Dressed in a priest's uniform, spiky hair and makeup, he mutters a reply to a reporter while possessively hugging torn guitar strings that have been pegged to bathroom tiles.)
Even if you're not a fan of EN, the doc itself is a great snapshot of legendary performance artists, and the creative and personality indulgences within such a colourful and nutty group.
Einstürzende Neubauten - Hör mit Schmerzen / Listen With Pain is available on DVD in England and Germany (though the longer quoted running times likely include bonus performance extras). Also worth checking out: the recent concert video Einstuerzende Neubauten: Palast der Republik (2006), and the filmic short Nihil oder Alle Zeit der Welt (1987).
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan