Uli Schueppel's DVD documentary, Elektrokohle (von Wegen) 
Uli Schueppel's Einstürzende Neubauten documentary, Elektrokohle (von Wegen) [Off Ways], focusing on Neubauten's first performance in East Germany, in 1989 at the Elektrokohle (electro-coal) factory in East Berlin, turns on an ingenious conceit. Given that he had just finished a Nick Cave documentary when he filmed the Neubauten concert, Uli Schueppel decided to put aside the Neubauten footage he had collected, because he worried that making two rock documentaries one after the other would type cast him as a rock documentarian. Even though fans had to wait 20 years to see his footage from that legendary — indeed, historic — concert, the final product is a work of true beauty, a rich document of the cultural and political significance of Neubauten during the downfall of the East German regime.
The conceit at the center of Elektrokohle is this: throughout the film, Schueppel moves back and forth between footage from the 1989 concert and contemporary footage of fans who had gone to the show in 1989, now reminiscing back on that day and what it meant to them. The genius of this back-and-forth movement is that the movement between the past and the present simultaneously carries out a movement between the innermost, backstage perspective and the perspective of those who saw it from the outside — the fans. Schueppel has constructed the film so that this back-and-forth movement occurs not merely on an intellectual or informational level, but also aesthetically: the 1989 footage is noisier and more rough-and-tumble, whereas the contemporary footage is calm and contemplative. In addition, the 1989 footage feels dark, confined, and cramped, whereas the contemporary — post-East Germany — footage emphasizes light, open spaces. In this way the back-and-forth, tension-and-release movement of the film feels almost like the breathing of a living creature. And, of course, the difference between the two times also makes itself palpable through the difference between the grainy feel of the 1989 VHS video tape and the cleaner feel of the higher-definition contemporary video. Neubauten's deep, dark music weaves in and out of the film, usually more prominent in the 1989 segments, and usually waiting in the wings during the contemporary scenes. But Schueppel does not apply this (very effective) schema mechanically.
To be clear: the documentary per se, Elektrokohle, is not a concert film — indeed, it is much more than a concert film. Nonetheless, the viewer who comes to the DVD merely looking for a concert film will not be disappointed, since Shueppel includes all of his 1989 concert footage in the DVD extras (although the concert footage lasts over an hour, at the time Schueppel did not capture the entire performance without breaks). The concert footage includes such classics as "Der Tod ist ein Dandy," "Ich bin's," "Letztes Biest," "Yü-Gung (Fütter mein Ego)," and "Zerstörte Zelle." (It should be noted that, unlike for the rest of the DVD, there are no English subtitles for the concert footage in the DVD extras.) The extras are extensive: over an hour of concert material, over an hour of additional interviews with the principals (including Schueppel himself), and, as a parting shot, a short, super-8 music video. All in all, the region 0 Elektrokohle DVD provides 4 hours of material, most with English and French subtitles.
The documentary is full of surprises and unexpected turns. The unannounced appearance of the world-famous East German playwright Heiner Müller at the concert is a delight — and even more enjoyable is the odd, last-minute diplomatic element he adds to the concert (something I will not go into for the sake of the first-time viewer). One of the fans in the contemporary footage remarks how it was only upon seeing Heiner Müller appear on stage that the full historical significance of the concert (already deeply politically laden for East German fans) became clear to him. And Schueppel provides a few light touches of his own, such as opening a contemporary shot in front of Café Melancholy.
Neubauten's concert took place shortly after the Wall first came down, and so, as the film makes clear, for many East Germans, it unfolded at an exciting but also potentially threatening point in time between the collapse of the previous security state and the approaching wave of unfamiliar capitalism and the insecurity that comes with capitalism. One sees the laborious, bureaucratic process for the band of crossing from West to East Berlin on the one hand, and on the other finds out about the underground methods by which East German fans got their treasured bootleg copies of Neubauten's music.
Schueppel wisely includes women among the fans with whom he re-traces the approach to the Elektrokohle building, so that the film does not create the false impression that young men were the band's only followers in East Germany. It is one of the female fans who tells us what it was like to live under the weight of her deep anger from being hounded by the Stasi (the East German Secret Police), and how, for her, someone who had ultimately gained West German citizenship through a marrying a friend, the concert brought all of her feelings to the surface. Another fan tells of how, upon subsequently getting access to the files the Stasi had kept on him, he discovered that Neubauten — so incredibly meaningful to its East German fans — was ultimately incomprehensible to the Stasi.
The viewer comes away with a culturally, politically, historically, and aesthetically rich experience of Neubauten's 1989 Elektrokohle concert. In my opinion, one does not even need to have any particular attachment to Neubauten in order to thoroughly enjoy the documentary, but of course, if Neubauten is close to one's heart, this DVD will be all the more worthwhile. If the standard concert film merely documents the meeting place for the band and its fans, then this documentary presents instead what contains or is contained by the meeting place of the performance: the outer experience of the fans and the inner, "backstage" experience (of course the DVD extras also provide the standard concert film experience, albeit in an unavoidably fragmentary form). In Elektrokohle, Schueppel has crafted an outstanding film. It could easily stand alone, but, together with the DVD extras, the viewer receives an even deeper cultural record of Neubauten's mythic East German concert. Anyone curious enough to want more than the standard concert film will be richly rewarded.
A final warning: the DVD is region 0 (it will not play on many standard DVD players); your best bet may be to watch it on a computer using VLC media player.