The Electronic Revolution of Klaus Maeck’s “William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers”

By on May 23, 2016

German filmmaker Klaus Maeck’s visually arresting 1986 documentary William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — features experimental collaborations between William S. Burroughs and experimental filmmaker Anthony Balch, dating back to the 1960s, intercut with footage of Burroughs reading from his work, including The Place of Dead Roads, filmed during his last European reading in Berlin, on May 9, 1986.

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Maeck had originally met Burroughs when he appeared in the somewhat forgotten 1984 West German-made low-budget cyberpunk political thriller, Decoder, directed by the singularly-named Muscha, which followed the story of a government agent who works for a shadow government in West Berlin named “Jaeger” (which means “Hunter”), played by New York City theatre legend Bill Rice. He’s put in charge or suppressing dissent behavior from the citizenry, and taking them out if they do anything wrong.

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There was an additional subplot about an employee of a fast-food burger chain franchise — F.M. Einheit, of the band Einstürzende Neubauten, playing a character named “F.M.” who wants to know what happens when he changes the background muzak being played in a “H-Burger” restaurant to industrial noise music, which actually incites the populace to rise up against their oppressive government and riot.

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Maeck had worked on the screenplay — along with several others — which was based, in part, on Burroughs’ cut-up writings, and in particular the ideas and techniques he’d used in his essay collection, Electronic Revolution, which looks into the power that images have — as well as the possibilities of using the human voice as a weapon — which can both be turned against the people by a government seeking to control them.

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Electronic Revolution influenced numerous industrial noise bands in the 70s, including Cabaret Voltaire, Coil and Throbbing Gristle, who were among the first to explore the possibilities of using tape loops, cut-ups, samples and “found sounds” to make music.

Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire once said about Burroughs’ book, “A lot of what we did, especially in the early days, was a direct application of his ideas to sound and music,” describing it as “a handbook of how to use tape recorders in a crowd … to promote a sense of unease or unrest by playback of riot noises cut in with random recordings of the crowd itself.”

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Maeck’s screenplay also touched upon some of the ideas from Burroughs’ The Revised Boy Scout Manual and The Job, in which he talks about how he shut down a coffee shop by recording the owners’ voices on tape, and playing it back in inconvenient times, which forced them to go out of business.

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For Maeck’s dystopian project — filmed in Hamburg in December 1982 —he was able to entice not only William S. Burroughs to make a brief cameo appearance during a dream sequence, but also was able to get Genesis P-Orridge (as Hohepriester, or “High Priest”) and cult actress Christiane F. (Christiane Felscherinow) to act in it, but he also persuaded several bands to participate in the film, including Soft Cell, Psychic TV, Einstürzende Neubauten, and The The.

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Maeck had wanted to draw attention back to his somewhat forgotten film Decoder as well as delve deeper into Burroughs’ work, and so he brought in German journalist named Jürgen Ploog to conduct an in-depth interview with Burroughs — who of course speaks in his interesting, somewhat monotonous monotone voice throughout — and then Maeck coupled their conversation with all kinds of interesting visual effects, including superimposed effects and filtered shots that were done by Anthony Balch back in the 60s, when experimental camera and editing techniques were de rigueur in art films.

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In a fascinating interview that Maeck did with Jack Sargeant for Fütüristika Magazine, published in 2014, Sergeant says that Maeck’s film Decoder “seems almost to be unique in approaching Burroughs from a very political perspective.”

He asks the filmmaker how the visual effects seen in Commissioner of Sewers came about, to which Maeck replies:

“My idea from the beginning was to illustrate his reading with background material. Well, I had time enough to collect that over the years. We used footage done in the Berlin Zoo while he was visiting (incidentally, the zoo was the only tourist attraction he wanted to go to visit.

The same happened years later when he stayed in Hamburg to work on Black Rider [a theatre piece directed by Robert Wilson and featuring Burroughs and Tom Waits]. Then there was some of my video-8 footage, shot during another visit to his home in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1990. And some excerpts from his own experimental movies, etc. Then images of the words typed onto a typewriter, these were words from book pages etc.

This was still enough, and I added another level by putting on some music, in order to create an atmosphere. Who wants to watch a reading? To serve all senses I wanted to involve all possible layers of word, image and sound – especially since the mixture of all creates something new, sometimes surprising. You put music to an image and it starts to live. You put an image to music and it starts to move. You put another image on top and it creates meaning, another life.”

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Ploog’s interview with Burroughs — which looks like it was filmed in a nondescript hotel room — reveals that the celebrated writer had encyclopedic knowledge about just about everything, providing answers to questions about life and death, and a higher consciousness, and he talks about what he might have done if he hadn’t become a writer after his novel Junky was published (he talks about an idea he once had to run for a government job, the Commissioner of Sewers, in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri).

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Burroughs also talks about art and animals (he wonders why human show empathy more for predatory animals than they do with their prey), and also reads excerpts from some his work, including “The Do Goods” and “Advice for Young People.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.