A Life at the Heart of Berlin's Cultural Revolutions
A witness to, and then driving force behind, Berlin’s creative and cultural evolution across nearly five decades, B-Movie protagonist Mark Reeder is startlingly modest. “Why would anyone be interested in my life?” Mark asks, wearing his Mao-esque militaria, sitting in a Kreuzberg cafe before jetting off to promote the film that has, if inadvertently, made him a Berlin icon. “I know I’ve done a lot of daft things in my life but I didn’t think it was particularly interesting to anyone.”
As we meet Mark, he is about to fly to Taipei to talk at a screening of B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin, a celebration of hedonistic excess and artistic anarchy in ‘80s West Berlin. Mark is the main protagonist of the film, also acting as a script consultant and writing the score. The film, already a cult classic a year after its release, is also a biopic of sorts; the story of a 20-something from Manchester who, “stranded” in the divided city, became an unlikely eyewitness to, and participant in, an unparalleled decade of sex, drugs and countercultural Revolution.
After Taiwan, Mark will DJ at the Sydney Opera House with New Order, for whom he recently remixed a track, ‘Singularity’, the video of which is composed of footage from B-Movie – Mark helped inspire the band’s electronic sound in the early 1980s after taking Bernard Sumner to some Berlin clubs. Despite all of this, the Mancunian sitting before me, in the same neighbourhood he has lived in for over three decades, never expected to become the figurehead of an era he struggles to even remember at times.
The film never received a cent in funding and was done for the hell of it; a bunch of enthusiastic friends pooling resources to remember a time that was rapidly being forgotten. Mark has never courted fame, never cultured some grand narrative of his life. In the same way he came to Berlin for a short visit in 1978 and somehow never left, he tends to just fall into things.
But if you think about it, Berlin might not be Berlin if it wasn’t for B-Movie’s humble protagonist. Mark was the one who suggested to Nick Cave that he move to Berlin from London (the singer arrived on his doorstep soon after); he brought Joy Division to play their only show in West Berlin shortly before his friend Ian Curtis died; he signed Paul van Dyk to his label MFS and introduced the DJ prodigy to trance music; he was among the small crowd of friends at the first Love Parade in 1989; before that, he staged illegal punk rock gigs in East Berlin, despite the Stasi watching his every move.
Right time, right place, perhaps. “But who cares?” Mark would say. It’s always been about simply doing your thing – no matter if a few collaborators get famous along the way. It’s certainly never been about the money. Mark is still in Berlin because, despite all the changes, it still inspires him to do his thing. He believes it’s the same for young people coming to the city today.
When 20-year-old Mark Reeder was travelling around West Germany in 1978, looking for obscure krautrock and synthesiser records by the likes of Tangerine Dream that he couldn’t find in the UK, he finally hitchhiked to the half-destroyed former capital that he describes in B-Movie as being “in a state of emergency.”
As Mark approached West Berlin along a gloomy East German transit road, he had no idea what to expect apart from some clichéd images from Cold War spy movies. But he was very curious. As he passed glitzy Kurfürstendamm and entered war-scarred streets, this city felt strangely familiar. It somehow felt like home.
The student who gave Mark a lift to Berlin offered him free accommodation – an apartment in a soon-to-be-torn-down building. It had six rooms, parquet floorboards, four-metre-high ceilings, and a white marble bathroom. Coming from a council house in Manchester, Mark had never seen anything like it. He ended up staying for eight months without paying a pfennig in rent. In the end, some activist squatters from Kreuzberg moved in and saved the tenement from the wrecking ball by throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, some of them from Mark’s former balcony.
On Mark’s first morning in Berlin, he went out to get some change so he could call his mum. Walking down Winterfeldtstraße in Schöneberg, he noticed a small bar that was open. As he entered the Eckkneipe and asked if anyone spoke English, he was greeted by a very tall transgender woman with bright red hair and ‘horror show’ white make-up. “This is like 10 o’clock in the morning,” Mark remembers. “It was that moment of realisation that you’re in Berlin.” For someone who always felt like an outsider in Manchester, he sensed he might have found a home here.
This slight young man soon took to wandering around Berlin wearing his favourite military uniforms, or a long black leather coat with wide lapels that made him look like a member of the Gestapo. But nobody cared. “Berlin was full of people like me,” Mark tells us, referring to the sea of draft dodgers, misfits, and artistic outlaws who wandered into the enclave of West Berlin. Not only was the city demilitarised, meaning that you didn’t have to join the army, but rents and social insurance were also subsidised to keep people in this western outpost within East Germany, despite staggering unemployment. And of course it had a big ugly concrete wall around its eastern edge. Mark would start to cross the Wall almost daily in the ‘80s, often strapping banned music tapes to his body to give to friends in East Berlin. He always felt comfortable on both sides of the city.
For me, it was exciting because it wasn’t driven by commercial aspiration of any kind.
B-Movie starts with Mark working at a small Virgin Records store in Manchester at the height of England’s punk explosion, but he was also listening to a lot of obscure German electronic music from the likes of Neu!, Klaus Schulze and Popol Vuh. When he got to Berlin, he soon realised that the punk rock or new wave bands here were nothing like the Buzzcocks or The Sex Pistols – or even his own band, the Frantic Elevators. Berlin was different. It was exciting because no one cared about being a star.
Mark had a friend who worked at an arthouse cinema, the Arsenal, and who invited him to see a gig by a band called Mania D around 1979. “What they did was so unique and original, it really captivated me,” says Mark of the all-girl post-punk act. He later managed Mania D under the name Malaria! and took them on tour with Nick Cave’s band, The Birthday Party. The music was experimental, dark, spontaneous, unrehearsed. The women weren’t musos, but rather artists who made sounds with instruments. The drummer was Gudrun Gut, who worked in a record store where unhinged musician-artist-filmmaker friends like Blixa Bargeld hung out and where Mark soon gravitated towards.
Gut and Bargeld formed the first iteration of experimental noise band Einstürzende Neubauten in 1980, spearheading a scene sometimes known as the ‘Genialer Dilletanten’ [Ingenious Dilettantes] – named after a 1981 festival of the same name that Mark played at with his depressive disco band, Die Unbekannten [The Unknown], featuring long-time Bad Seeds drummer Thomas Wydler. “Everything is allowed,” said Bargeld of Berlin’s musical underground in 1981. “Everyone can make their own, individual music. There are no boundaries.” These young Berliners celebrated music that was amateurish, avant-garde, adventurous – free. Mark says this scene was also sometimes known as the ‘Berliner Krankheit’, or ‘Berlin Disease’ – the slogan for a 1981 German tour by Berlin bands like Neubauten and Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh that attracted controversy, and beer bottles, as West Germans reacted angrily to the dissonant, fractured noise.
“For me, it was exciting because it wasn’t driven by commercial aspiration of any kind,” says Mark of the West Berlin scene. “You just expressed yourself and did what you wanted. You didn’t have to conform to anything.” In Manchester, by contrast, every band was desperately trying to get a record contract with a major label.
Mark flitted between myriad scenes. He mentions the short-lived, controversially named Cafe Vaterland – later a new wave club called Exxcess – which the infamous artist Martin Kippenberger plastered with pictures of the Kaiser. In the early ‘80s, he’d see Jayne County around, the transgender punk pioneer who had moved to Berlin from New York via London, and was hanging out with the likes of trans nightclub owner Romy Haag, Bowie’s former girlfriend. Then there was Berlin’s first video roller burger bar. “The waitresses were all trannies on roller skates, it was fucking brilliant. And all they showed was a 50th-generation copy of a fake copy of Star Wars.” Mark recalls being taken to a Kneipe in Charlottenburg called Lützower Lampe, where the majority of the transgender clientele looked like Hermann Göring in drag.
The waitresses were all trannies on roller skates, it was fucking brilliant.
Berliners liked Mark Reeder and accepted him into the fold. They liked the fact that he was from somewhere else, and still do. That’s how he became the protagonist in B-Movie. “The way the directors saw it, I was a Brit coming to Berlin as an outsider and was looking at what’s going on from my British perspective. But I was also involved, and that was unique. I wasn’t just a visitor.”
These days, a lot of people come to Berlin and stay put. But Mark was a pioneer. In the ‘80s, few had the wherewithal to stay in a city that appeared to have no future. But Mark knew the value of living without boundaries. B-Movie has inspired people from around the world who are searching, less for nostalgia, but with a belief in the idea that such free creative spaces can actually exist. The period covered in the film inevitably laid the foundation for the Berlin of today.
As befitting the Berlin portrayed in the film, B-Movie is a labour of love paid for by the filmmakers themselves. The funding bodies didn’t think anyone would be interested in a documentary about West Berlin in the 1980s. It took Mark four years alone to reconstruct the music from Joy Division demos and the like. The sublime theme song, ‘You Need The Drugs’, by cult Berlin DJ/producer Westbam, features a vocal track that The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler sang into a laptop one morning. Meanwhile, scores of people donated their decaying video footage from the time. Mark himself uncovered forgotten tapes from 1980s BBC and ITV documentaries on West Berlin that he had produced and hosted, which became the basis for Mark’s role in B-Movie.
So in true Berlin style, they just did it. And now Mark’s heading off to discuss the film in Taipei and DJ with New Order at the Sydney Opera House. But again, the film, like Mark Reeder’s life in Berlin, has never been about money, fame or success – which was why Bowie also loved Berlin, because he could be anonymous and people took him at face value. “It’s not a success story. It’s a story of failure, if anything. I don’t drive off in a Porsche into the sunset at the end.” No, he ends up getting murdered while having sex in a schlock horror film (acting in splatter films was one of Mark’s many day jobs).
The Berlin that Mark has lived in for nearly four decades is ultimately a place of self-discovery. “You come to Berlin to find yourself; it’s a great place to discover who you are. In your early 20s, it’s a great place to find what you’re really about, you know, what your direction’s going to be. Maybe you leave afterwards, but you can find yourself here. In the film, the person on the screen is the same age as many of the people now watching it. That’s why they can identify with the character.”
We have to fight for our right to party, if you purge Berlin of that, then you have a ghost town.
Mark reiterates that nowadays, he’s doing what he’s always done. He goes to his studio and works. Never enamoured by playing on stage, or even performing the DJ gigs that more and more frequently come his way, Mark prefers the solitude of his dark studio where he has just spent months remixing a New Order track. When we meet on a gloriously sunny Sunday, the 58-year-old had been bunkered down in his studio, working mostly on his upcoming album, the first that he has exclusively performed himself. Mark is also helping to plot the B-Movie sequel: E-Movie will chart the techno revolution of the ‘90s in East Berlin, which Mark’s record label MFS (Masterminded For Success – a play on the official name of the Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) was an integral part of.
Mark’s faith in Berlin’s future is refreshing. The city may be barely recognisable from the halcyon ‘80s, but he believes that in fundamental ways it hasn’t changed. Still, Berlin’s radicalism, its political struggles that are well-documented in B-Movie, especially the squatter movement, must continue. “There are many things that this city has to confront in the future. First of all, we have to fight for our right to party. If you purge Berlin of that, then you have a ghost town. No matter how many office blocks you build, it’s all going to be gone.”
For music, videos and news from Mark, visit 5point1.org