Aficionados of electronic dance music know that Germany remains one of the greatest producers of techno in the world, and that visiting Berlin’s infamous nightspot Berghain is the EDM equivalent of making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the documentary When I Think of Germany at Night (Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht), director Romuald Karmakar hammers that point home by focusing on five major DJs who are keeping Teutonic techno alive and well. Speaking — and sometimes freely associating — about the music they make and its evolution over the past decades, international stars like Ricardo Villalobos and Roman Flugel take us behind the turntables to reveal the methods to their madness.
These DJs may save your life.
Don’t, however, expect a fast-paced, Vice-style exposé that’s edited at 240 BPM: Germany consists of austere and very, well, German filmmaking, with Karmakar shooting in long, fixed takes without ever really moving the camera or cutting within scenes. The style might put off viewers looking to trip out during a screening, but house music fans will appreciate such a serious depiction of the sounds they love.
Along with Villalobos and Flugel, the DJs Sonja Moonear, Ata and David Moufang (aka Move D) are all given ample time to talk about what initially drew them to techno, how they started spinning and the way the club scene has changed since it first gained real traction in the 1990s. Whereas house began as an underground movement that could only be heard in select spots, it is now made up of a “huge tapestry that one can’t see the end of,” according to Ata, who claims that DJs are obliged to specialize more and more in order to distinguish themselves from the crop.
Lengthy discussions are intercut with extended shots of each subject at work, with cinematographer Frank Griebe (Cloud Atlas) framing the club sequences in a way that reveals both the DJs in action and how the dancers react to the changing beats. At times, the sound is mixed so that we can only hear one half of the turntables, allowing us to grasp how each DJ preps tracks and blends them into what’s already playing. Other scenes go full force with the bass so that we can see the crowd go wild.
The job of the DJ is, after all, to make “rhythmic music” and get people moving, though it’s easier said than done. In Villalobos‘ studio, which has so many wires and machines that it looks like a NASA lab from the 1960s, we see the painstaking effort that goes into digging up old records, sampling their tracks and creating new sounds from them. On the opposite spectrum, the more philosophical Move D explains how “nature is the source of all music” as he stands next to an apple tree and delivers a meandering monologue that includes references to Isaac Newton and Kubrick’s 2001.
Karmakar certainly knows his subject well — he already made the documentaries 196 BPM and Villalobos — which may explain why there are no titles to say who’s who, or which club or festival is being shown. Such a choice can be frustrating to the uninitiated, although Germany is less of a primer on techno than an appreciation of some of its brightest talents. And it’s one that you can contemplate at a pace much slower than the music itself.
Production company: Arden Film
Cast: Ricardo Villalobos, Sonja Moonear, Ata, Roman Flugel, David Moufang/Move D
Director: Romuald Karmakar
Producer: Andro Steinborn
Director of photography: Frank Griebe
Editors: Robert Thomann, Anne Fabini
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Stray Dogs