Although their appeal is not universal, there is little doubt that Einsturzende Neubauten are one of the most unique and influential bands of the last 25 years. Although they were not the only band to have a hand in the creation of industrial music, they were perhaps the most extreme exemplars of the burgeoning idiom. After the initial burst of punk’s popularity, some artists retrenched into poppier, more disciplined sounds and became New Wave, whereas others decided to continue traveling further to the left of the dial, tearing more strips of flesh from the corpus of contemporary pop. Einsturzende Neubauten was formed by the latter, a group of German punks who wanted to deconstruct the very notion of music by replacing drums kits and guitars with sheet metal and shopping carts. Of course, initial experiments with scrap metal were as much the product of poverty as inspiration, but the idea stuck.
In 1985 Einsturzende Neubauten journeyed to Japan, where they played to packed houses and rendezvoused with Japanese filmmaker Sogo Ishii. The result of this meeting was 1/2 Mensch, a riveting artifact of the band at their early punkish prime. Conceptually, it reminds me of nothing so much as Pink Floyd’s XXXX performance film, as it mixes staged performances and Japanese live footage with Ishii’s discordant imagery and disturbing visual aesthetic. The set, featuring 10 tracks culled primarily from 1983’s Drawings of Patient OT and 1985’s then-new Halber Mensch, begins with the band alone in the ruins of a post-industrial landscape—an abandoned factory, from the looks of it—and expands to include odd montage sequences and pseudo-narrative featuring various band members in odd situations.
When I say odd, I’m not mincing words: there are piles of flesh-eating centipedes, S&M gymnasts, along with an odd dance troupe that seems to symbolize the spirit of Japanese moral and physical decay. They do a dance number that reminds me of nothing so much as the video for Busta Rhyme’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”. There’s a lot here that reminds me of something else, but that’s hardly the fault of Ishii or the band: this was 1985. This was before Tetsuo the Iron Man, before the video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” or David Fincher’s 7even. This kind of post-industrial decay aesthetic may seem old hat two-decades on, after it has been so rigorously institutionalized and assimilated that it’s the de rigeur style for metal videos and teen horror flicks, but back then something like this was still pretty damn weird. Of course, there is always something perpetually upsetting about seeing an animated fetus moving through an inky-black universe of German screams and scraping metal.
The music set to accompany this visual tour de force is, appropriately, harsh and ascetic. This is Einsturzende Neubauten at their most uncompromising, with songs created out of nothing so much as the delicate interplay between droning power tools and Blixa Bargeld’s guttural wailing. It is an acquired taste, but if you have acquired the taste this is a blissful experience. You can only understand so much of the band’s appeal from their recorded output: you really have to see them live to appreciate the passionate, forceful athleticism that creates their outlandish but surprisingly intricate sound. Lacking their actual presence, a performance DVD like this should give you a good approximation.
If it was just a matter of the movie, I would not hesitate to give this my highest recommendation, but there are some mitigating factors which weigh against the film’s obvious quality. First, this is one of the most unenthusiastic DVD releases I have ever seen. There are no special features at all, besides a promo gallery for Cherry Red Film’s upcoming releases. There is no option for subtitles. There are frequent instances of Japanese text throughout the film which are frustratingly untranslated. The film is presented in full-screen format, with no indication of its original dimensions. Finally, the sound and video transfer, while passable, are just not very crisp.
Of course, the slipshod presentation makes perfect sense in the context of Einsturzende Neubauten’s ongoing dispute with their original label, Some Bizarre. According to the band, Some Bizarre has kept a number of Einsturzende Neubauten’s early albums in print without remunerating the band in any way shape or form. As a result, there are often competing (and inferior) editions of many of the group’s albums available in stores. Anyone who’s been to see the band live has probably heard one of Bargeld’s frequent discourses on the subject. The band recently released a statement to their official website (www.neubauten.org), which I have excerpted here:
Stevo (Some Bizarre) is releasing, without permission from the band, a DVD of this film by Sogo Ishii . . . We have produced our own version of the DVD, which is currently available on the 25th Anniversary Tour . . . We are in the process of making a future edition available to the wider public . . . Please, if you are concerned about the wishes and welfare of the band, do NOT buy Stevo’s version.
Given the contentious background, there is little wonder that 1/2 Mensch is nowhere near the release it could have been. This is a great film that has been unfortunately underserved by this careless release. Unless you’re an Einsturzende Neubauten fanatic planning on buying any and all versions available, there’s really no reason to reward anyone who insists on putting out such a substandard product.