A new film brings the inspiration of 1980s Berlin to the present

The German representative of Factory Records has made a film to celebrate the freedom of the city.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Berlin is the last bastion of freethinking,” says Mark Reeder, a 57-year-old musician and record producer who escaped in 1978 from Denton, his home town in Greater Manchester, to live on the west side of the German city.

“People flee here now but, back then, it was, ‘What ya wanna go there for?’ In Berlin, you can be comfortable, express yourself, find yourself, without anybody saying, ‘Look at you!’ It’s really vibrant, and I’ve never found another city as relaxed as this one either.”

Reeder’s life in west Berlin was built on talent, nerve and a little Manc swagger: as the guitarist and synth-player in Die Unbekannten and Shark Vegas, as the German representative for the legendary Factory Records, and as a television presenter (he hosted a special episode of The Tube, about Berlin, with Muriel Gray). Reeder also worked as a record producer (his credits include the last album made in the GDR), as an organiser of illicit gigs (he put the Düsseldorf punk band Die Toten Hosen on in a church in East Berlin) and as the music-mad Englishman about town, known for his love of military uniforms. For our interview, outside a café in happening Kreuzberg, he is wearing Colombian anti-narcotics-squad night-raid fatigues. “Lots of pockets!” he grins.

Reeder’s adventures in Germany are the inspiration for a new documentary film by the producer and music journalist Jörg Hoppe called B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin, 1979-1989, due to have its UK premiere at the Sensoria festival in Sheffield next month.

“My next-door neighbour, Heiko Lange, was working on an idea with Jörg Hoppe about the West Berlin scene in the Eighties, which has been forgotten because the focus in recent years has been on the trendy east,’’ Reeder explains. “When Hoppe heard an album of remixes I’d done called five point one, he asked me to enhance the sound of Eighties Berlin punk-rock recordings for the cinema. I said, ‘No problem, and by the way, I have lots of footage from the Eighties, too.’ He watched my tapes, came back to me and said, ‘My God! We have the story . . . Your story!’

“But the film’s not about me,’’ Reeder is keen to clarify. “I’m just there to guide the viewer.’’ His narration draws on the experiences of a confident raconteur, smoothly linking footage collected from 74 film-makers. The result is a nocturnal trip through West Berlin’s dive bars and punk haunts, with a thumping soundtrack ranging from German electronica to post-punk, including bar-stool appearances by the likes of Nick Cave, who drew great inspiration from the city (and lived in Reeder’s flat for a while).

Daytime Kreuzberg, that volatile district of political demonstrations, mass squatting and frequent battles with the police, is also featured. “We wanted to preserve the images and energies of Eighties West Berlin for young people,” Reeder says, “to show them how today’s Berlin buzz, not to mention its techno scene, grew out of the decade – that we created the platform. The first Ufo club, for example, was just someone’s flat with a hole in the floorboards and steps going down to the cellar.” The recipe was simple: “Stroboscope, smoke-machine, acid house.”

Before leaving Manchester, Reeder played bass for the Frantic Elevators alongside Mick Hucknall (of Simply Red fame) and worked in Virgin’s tiny Records and Tapes store on Lever Street. Regular customers included Pete Shelley, Peter Saville, Tony Wilson and Ian Curtis. “When I was working in Virgin, Ian would come in during his lunch hour,” Reeder says. “I think he trawled all the record shops looking for reggae.

“Joy Division represented that raw deepness that a lot of the punk bands would just lose. The Buzzcocks would become more and more a pop band, then you had Plastic Bertrand and Jilted John – that’s not what punk rock was all about. It became a parody of itself.”

So it was the sense of decline that made him get out of the UK? “Yeah, things deteriorated during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, when I stuck a poster of [the Sex Pistols’] ‘God Save the Queen’ in my bedroom window and an elderly neighbour called the police and they ordered me to remove it.

“Thatcher was beginning to rear her ugly head. I just decided that I didn’t want to stay in Britain while she was in power. Also, I was drawn to Berlin’s different approach to making music. Most of the people weren’t musicians, they were just doing it, never thinking about making money or products.”

Despite sold-out festival screenings in Berlin, Rio, Istanbul and Linz, the Anglo-German B-Movie has a money problem of its own. “The Berlin Film Fund didn’t give us a cent,” Reeder says, patting one of his many pockets. “The woman there told Hoppe that it was missing a love story. But the love story is that Mark Reeder fell in love with Berlin!

“For the time being, we can only show it at festivals, not in cinemas outside Germany, because we don’t have the licensing clearance for the music.’’ But this youthful-looking, blue-eyed punk won’t give up. It has become something of a mission.

“Artists still come to Berlin searching for something, whether they stay for a few months or a few years. And this film is about inspiration. Not nostalgia.” 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais