While German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is generally remembered for his prolific output as a filmmaker, writer, and theater director, he was just as compelling in front of the camera. Though the majority of his performances were for his own films — including an incredible starring role in Faustrecht der Freiheit (1975) aka Fox and His Friends — his final role in a feature film has been sadly neglected. Director Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze ‘89 (1982) is a zany blend of sci-fi and detective story tropes with some eye-popping, thoroughly ‘80s visuals and a delightful sense of the unpredictable. New York-based company Film Movement is attempting to rescue the film from obscurity with a recent Kickstarter campaign to which I strongly, strongly encourage you to contribute.
The film follows Lieutenant Jansen (Fassbinder) – a police officer in a near crime-free, futuristic society with no pollution, poverty, or unemployment – as he is called in to investigate a bomb threat made against the Combine, the country’s most important media conglomerate. Jansen and his partner Anton (Günther Kaufmann, a Fassbinder regular and his former lover) learn that the threat is only a hoax, but the note it was printed on is very distinctive – pointing to only two dozen possible culprits – and Jansen’s investigation leads him towards an increasingly dangerous situation that seems to involve the leaders of the Combine itself.
Based on Per Wahloo’s novel Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, Katz and Fassbinder updated the book by setting the film in the near future and this certainly results in some of the campiest, though most appealing elements. The cinematography, which alternates between Day-Glo ‘80s colors and a dark noirish flavor, is from Fassbinder’s regular collaborator Xaver Schwarzenberger, who shot most of his late-period films. There’s some wonderfully dynamic camera work with the movement in some scenes actually feeling a bit like a musical. The film is creative and visually impressive, despite the obviously low budget and cheap sets. Probably the most memorable visual is Fassbinder himself, who sports an outlandish leopard print suit, which appears in nearly every frame of the film. But the suit isn’t all – incredibly, the same material can be found in a variety of unexpected places, including on his gun and in his car.
Truly a title with cult appeal, the best way I can summarize Kamikaze ’89 is to say that it’s sort of like Alphaville (1965) meets Demolition Man (1993). While other literary and filmic science fiction works have portrayed the repressive side of utopias as fascist and controlling, or simply boring and repetitive, Jansen is the embodiment of that here. His life revolves around solving cases – he has a perfect record – and he is ultimately shown to have a lonely existence lacking any pleasures. His life is gradually revealed to be bleak and depressing – not unlike a standard film noir protagonist – and there is something a little depressing about seeing Fassbinder in this role at the end of his life. He’s drunk, bloated, exhausted, and sloppy — not unlike Philip Marlowe at the end of a 20 year bender — which is ultimately perfect for the film.
While the plot is a relatively run of the mill murder mystery with a dash of corporate espionage, there are some really amazing (and amusing) futuristic elements. All the characters basically Skype to communicate with each other – using televisions of varying sizes to make video calls – and there’s a popular reality TV show called the Laughing Contests, where contestants simply laugh for hours on end. Fassbinder visits what is described as a “police disco,” with improbable swingin’ ‘60s-style dancers that clearly get on Jansen’s nerves. The business executives all seem to have raided the Joker’s closet and their building looks like a late ‘80s/early ‘90s rollerskating rink. Of further interest to film fans will be the soundtrack from Tangerine Dream, which has wound up in wider circulation than the film itself.
Film Movement’s Kickstarter campaign could likely result in the cult film release of the year. Rewards include everything from a DVD or Blu-ray of the film itself to an audio file of Cassavetes shouting about Kamikaze ’89, the soundtrack on CD, a leopard print Kamikaze ’89 bag, passes to BAM in Brooklyn, a theatrical poster, a collection of all Film Movement Classics’ releases to date, and… drumroll… a camera prop that Fassbinder used in the film. The funds raised in the campaign will go towards releasing the film theatrically in select venues, as well as on Blu-ray, but could also include a new 35mm print if funding is exceeded. I’m going to have to start my own campaign just so I can afford that damn camera.
I first saw and wrote about the film in early 2015, so it was completely mind-blowing to me that not only had someone else managed to track it down, but loved it enough that they decided it needed a Blu-ray release. Luckily, I had the chance to ask Film Movement’s Maxwell Wolkin about the campaign.
Diabolique: I love Kamikaze ‘89 and came across it when I did a Fassbinder series early last year, but how did the crew at Film Movement come across this forgotten gem?
Maxwell Wolkin: At least one of us has fond memories of discovering it on VHS at his local video store back in the 80’s, and being charmed by the mix of arthouse and genre trappings, not to mention RFW in that suit. But we were reminded of it when it was featured in a recent Fassbinder retrospective at Film Society of Lincoln Center. We’re rep cinema nerds and spend a lot of time kicking ideas around for re-issues based on flicks we’re seeing — but a lot of those are just ideas, not necessarily plausible acquisitions. In this case we were lucky enough that Ziegler Film had actually been working on a new 4K restoration, and the rest was history.
Diabolique: Having Kamikaze ‘89 as your first theatrical release is not only an incredibly bold move, but shows a lot of love and enthusiasm for the film. What kind of reception have you been getting from programmers? And do you plan on doing more of these in the future?
MW: Technically this isn’t our first theatrical release under the Film Movement Classics banner — we put out Eric Rohmer’s The Marquise of O last year and of course have been championing contemporary arthouse cinema under our main label since 2002 — but it is the first one we’re doing wide across North America. We’re getting great feedback from programmers; it seems like a lot of people had similar video store experiences with this movie! As far as doing more — yes, we love being able to shine a light on under sung cult classics. As a matter of fact, we will be doing a theatrical release for Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop this summer as well.
Diabolique: I know director Wolf Gremm passed away last year, but are you hoping for the involvement of other members of the cast and crew for the special features?
MW: The film’s producer, and Wolf Gremm’s widow, Regina Ziegler has been amazingly supportive. She will record a commentary track for the home video release as well as attend the premiere at BAM. Ziegler Film also got us the incredible John Cassavetes radio spots heard in the Kickstarter video and the trailer, plus the camera prop and (out of print) soundtrack albums available as rewards for the Kickstarter campaign.
Diabolique: Can you talk about how Kamikaze ‘89 fits in with the larger body of your somewhat unique list of releases so far?
MW: We aim to offer a wide breadth of what we see as having “classic” status, whether it’s great films from auteurs such as Rohmer, or popular arthouse titles like Antonia’s Line, or the more wild cult stuff from Kamikaze ’89 to Beat Takeshi’s groundbreaking early crime features. There’s a nice space for the more traditional arthouse fare, but we also like to go outside of the box and that is certainly where Kamikaze seems to fit.
Thanks so much and best of luck to Film Movement! And everyone, really, fund this campaign if you know what’s good for you.