BERLIN – The metallic clank and screech of cult German industrial band Einstuerzende Neubauten’s homemade instruments are chillingly appropriate for “Lament,” its idiosyncratic performance for the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
Since bursting onto the Berlin punk scene in the early 1980s, blending guitar feedback, road drills and lumps of metal, the band — whose name means “collapsing new buildings” — has become increasingly highbrow, winning a five-star review for the album of “Lament” in Britain’s Financial Times.
Alternatively loud and lyrical, using a dulcimer strung with barbed wire and crutches played like a cello as well as a string quartet, “Lament” portrays the horror of the 1914-18 war without patriotism or nostalgia. Somehow, the show — now in the middle of a 17-city European tour — also manages to be entertaining.
“I want to tell a horrible story beautifully. I don’t think it would be justifiable to do a whole performance about World War I with a completely depressing ending,” Neubauten’s front man and creative director Blixa Bargeld says.
It is an eclectic mix, from the deafening Kriegsmaschinerie (war machines) that open the show to an electro rendition of telegrams between Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Czar Nicholas. “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” was once played by the band of the all-black U.S. regiment nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters”.
A 16th-century Dutch composition blends with ghostly early recordings of prisoners of war, while Pete Seeger’s folk song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is revived, partly in German, in the version made famous by Marlene Dietrich in the 1960s.
But the most uplifting moment is when Bargeld, once a skinny punk in leather trousers and now a dapper figure in a black suit and bare feet, brings his song “How Did I Die?” to the haunting conclusion: “We didn’t die / We’re just singing a different song.”
“Lament” and new works by former Velvet Underground member John Cale and British band Tindersticks were commissioned for anniversary events in 2014 and 2015 by the Belgian city of Diksmuide in Flanders, which was totally destroyed in the war.
Germany’s approach to this year’s 100th anniversary of World War I and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II — German defeat in the first bearing the seeds of the second, in historians’ view — has been low key and reflective.
Bargeld says he tried to keep a distance from the “horrific” subject matter but the process was inevitably painful.
“When you write about death you are always writing about your own death,” says the 55-year-old German musician.