According to Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür, it was toward the end of the group’s first U.S. tour when his bandmates Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider grew fascinated by the phenomenon of American radio. Their time in the States had been successful largely thanks to local stations in the U.S., which, in the halcyon days before corporations like Clear Channel dictated playlists, had disseminated their music and conducted interviews with them. But the concept was a novelty to these nerdy young men—at that time, there were no local German radio stations on either side of the wall.
The most popular singles from station to station were listed in Billboard magazine as “Radio Activity,” and, on their return to West Germany, the band invented a refrain from that phrase that also conveyed American radio’s egalitarian spirit: “Radio activity / is in the air for you and me.” The ominous double meaning of this refrain, which becomes dominant as the song progresses, forms the central component of the band’s 1976 album Radio-Aktivität (Radio-Activity), their first to include English-language lyrics. The title song, and the feelings it created, would become an indelible part of the epilogue to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, a film that interrogates the country’s real and imagined past, present, and future.
Like Can and Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk formed within West Germany’s nascent avant-garde music scene, with the desire to create a new, authentic German culture that was neither influenced by postwar British or American pop nor tainted by the genocidal ethnonationalism of Nazism. “The culture of Central Europe was cut off in the thirties, and many of the intellectuals went to the U.S.A. or France, or they were eliminated,” said Hütter in a 1975 interview. “We are picking it up again where it left off, continuing this culture of the thirties, and we are doing this spiritually.”
Based in Düsseldorf, West Germany’s industrial heartland, the band drew its inspiration from the “mechanical” nature of the German language, aiming to create music that sounded like it had been produced by actual machines and to play with “German precision.” Even the name Kraftwerk, which means “power plant,” expressed the musicians’ investment in being German; like a traffic cone, an image that adorned the band’s first album covers, signs that said “kraftwerk” were a common sight along Rhine-Ruhr roads—associating the band and its sounds with the depersonalized and automated, but also with something quotidian and familiar. Songs with simple melodies about driving down the Autobahn, with tones that imitated honking horns and roaring engines, were what Hütter described as “industrielle Volksmusik.” They were undeniably familiar and regional yet impossibly strange; they were mechanical and detached yet had an undeniable strain of humor.
A member of the same bourgeois postwar generation as Hütter and Schneider, Fassbinder had similar artistic goals of forging a new German identity. As with Kraftwerk’s music, his cinema was not merely reclaiming what had been lost but moving into the future with something unique. “I would say that in 1945, at the end of the war, the chances which did exist for Germany to renew itself were not realized,” said Fassbinder. “Instead, the old structures and values on which our state rests now as a democracy have remained the same.” The admiration between Kraftwerk and Fassbinder was reciprocal. As bandmember Karl Bartos explained, “Fassbinder loved it . . . [his] crew were sometimes forced to listen to Kraftwerk eight hours a day on the set. He would play Autobahn and Radio-Activity to the point where no one could stand it anymore. It was a bit like brainwashing. Flattering to hear, though.” And sometimes, after a long day at Kling Klang studio, the band would put on the director’s film or TV work.
Though Fassbinder had used “Radio-Activity” in Chinese Roulette (1976), his coked-out chamber drama that starred Anna Karenina, Margit Carstensen, and Ulli Lommel, the track’s recurrence throughout the final episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz gives it a more natural, depraved home. Both the song and the epilogue attempt to articulate that new German identity, smashing together antithetical feelings, ideas, and cultural detritus. Featuring repurposed bleeps of a Geiger counter and a mellifluous pop hook, “Radio-Activity” neatly pairs with Doblin’s source novel, a work that is narrated by the chaos of a modern city and periodically needles its protagonist with the cacophonous sounds of mass media. Snippets of Kraftwerk’s song are used as markers of torture and agony, and upend the series’ carefully constructed historical verisimilitude. The disjunctions remove viewers from a simple understanding of history as a chain of cause-and-effect relationships and interconnected events, allowing them to see the imminent danger that can lie beneath seemingly banal times.
Over the course of the previous twelve hours, we’ve watched a linear history unfold: The protagonist Franz Biberkopf (the classically Teutonic Günter Lamprecht) comes undone after finishing a prison sentence. Unable to live on the straight and narrow as he had wished—a result of Weimar-era economics rather than his own moral failing—he sinks lower and lower into thieving and boozing, and allies himself with a stuttering criminal named Reinhold (Gottfried John). Though Franz initially believes Reinhold to be a fine ally, the man proves to be certifiably evil: in addition to the casual, impulsive cruelty he inflicts on others, Reinhold pushes Franz out of a moving car and eventually murders Franz’s girlfriend and main source of income, Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). Unable to deal with Mieze’s death, Franz is reduced to a catatonic state and returned to the safety of an institution, the Buch mental hospital.
No longer at the mercy of modernity, Berlin, and the hazards of underworld living, Franz is punished by elaborate hallucinations in which he relives and reconfigures events leading up to Mieze’s death. These woes are not limited to the “real” places Franz has been; they also include hellish tableaus that bring the novel’s homoerotic and sadomasochistic subtexts to the surface. Elements of Christian iconography, a slaughterhouse full of naked human bodies, nuclear catastrophe, and iconic paintings of torment and sin loom in these scenarios, and here is where Fassbinder’s music selections come to the fore. These images play out against snippets of Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E Minor, and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, sections of Franz Lehár’s Der Zarewitsch (an operetta with homoerotic overtones), and slowed-down, degraded recordings of “Liebe kleine Nachtigall,” a pop record that Franz bought for Mieze.
The layers of classical German (or simply pre-Nazi) music intermingle with Franz’s screams as well as pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s, creating a musique concrète of psychic instability. “Radio-Activity” is the most intriguing of those songs, and not simply because it’s an earworm. Its sound is not immediately menacing, starting with a soft pattering noise that grows quicker until it fades away. But then it grows stranger, with Morse code beeps, steam-like hisses, and a 4/4 marching beat that’s delivered as a single tone rather than with a drum. Soon, a sweet, simple five-note melody overtakes these soulless mechanical elements. The lyrics, sung gently by Hütter, rest uneasily between a medieval, morbid children’s rhyme that evokes ad copy:
Is in the air for you and me
Discovered by Madame Curie
Tune in to the melody
The repetitive lyrics are instructive: get on the same wavelength of this thing, for it is in the air, unavoidable, not unlike the ambient antisemitism and trauma of World War I in early ’30s Germany that opened the door to Nazism. (The Nazis, masters of marketing, had adopted the mass media for their own purposes early on, and carried on until the very end; Germany Calling, a pro-Nazi radio program that aired in the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1945, played swing music in between appeals to the English to surrender.) “Radio-Activity”—which plays throughout the epilogue in segments that last from thirty seconds (the length of an ad) to two and a half minutes (the length of a ’50s pop song)—most frequently underscores another ambient, unspoken reality, revealing that Franz and Rheinhold have always been lovers, even if neither of them could admit it. In Franz’s fractured subconscious, he envisions emotional and physical sparring sessions with Rheinhold, such as a scene that depicts a sweat-drenched boxing match between the two men and another where Rheinhold whips Franz inside of a smoky, subterranean gay bar. Most disturbingly, “Radio-Activity” comes in at the zenith of this masochistic love affair that Franz envisions, which finds Rheinhold asking for Franz’s heart—the actual organ—and enlisting members of their gang to help him cut it out.
Rather than being tormented by the noise and crush of modernity, Franz is tormented by the people in his life. Worse yet, he vacillates between passively allowing this harm and being a willing participant. Inside the Alexanderplatz station, full of crumpled newspaper and dirt, an impromptu funeral procession is being held for Mieze after she’s been processed at the human slaughterhouse. “Radio-Activity” begins to rise in volume on the soundtrack as the scene abruptly cuts to Rheinhold kneeling inside the office of his gang leader, Pums. Franz, shirtless, is being held prone in a chair by uniformed thugs, with Rheinhold staring desirously off-camera. Throughout this conflict, the steady rhythm of “Radio-Activity” draws out the anxiety of Franz’s precarious situation while simultaneously giving voice to Rheinhold’s anticipation of finally getting what he wants. The song’s ambiguous menace was made for moments like these.
The morally complicated, unresolved nature of Franz’s relationship with Rheinhold, fueled by desire that is met with hatred and physical harm, is not unlike humanity’s relationship to various forms of technology, whether it is something as physically powerful as nuclear energy or as psychically damaging as media. But the times in which Franz lives—where the tumult of austerity, a generation of men severely wounded with negligible government support, and inflation are “solved” by the rise of fascism—make Rheinhold’s sadistic push and pull of Franz seem reasonable. In this final episode, what had only brushed against our poor protagonist (or what will occur in the years to come) becomes flesh: Nazis, antisemitic attacks, the horror of concentration camps, and nationalism manifest themselves in Franz’s unconscious. “Radio-Activity” rips apart the past constructed for the film, and serves as one of Fassbinder’s methods to show that these horrors were not so far away from viewers in 1980. And they’re not far away from our reality either: in a year when a pandemic froze our lives, when it became legal for plainclothes government officers to abduct those protesting against police brutality, when the president forced a baldly nationalistic education onto children and teenagers to crush a nascent reckoning about race, when women imprisoned in ICE detention facilities had their reproductive organs stolen—the strains of Franz’s time aren’t simply in the air but solidly manifested.