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Friday, May 6, 2016

Kamikaze '89

Kamikaze ’89 screens in a new 4K restoration at BAMcinématek from June 3—9.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Kamikaze '89. Photo courtesy Film Movement
By Nick Pinkerton

Kamikaze ’89 is a science-fiction whodunnit set in a near-future that sits awkwardly between utopia and dystopia. It was directed by Wolf Gremm, a gigging journeyman whose critical reputation at the time of its release was basically dismal. The film’s eyesore costumes and neon-wreathed production design suggest that it belongs to the same extended cinematic universe as Menahem Golan’s West German kitsch classic The Apple (1980). And playing the central role of burly, alcoholic police detective Lieutenant Jansen is one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

At a remarkably young age Fassbinder had digested the whole history of literary, theatrical, and cinematic modernism, but he preferred the jostle and stink of the street to a quiet ivory tower. He believed that while making tough, rigorous, complicated films, he could function as a popular artist, and to a remarkable degree his faith in himself and his public was rewarded. Nothing was beneath him. On New Year’s Eve, 1980, two days after the last episode of his opus Berlin Alexanderplatz had aired on German television, he appeared on Stars in der Manege, an ersatz Deutsch Circus of the Stars, doing a stage magic act in which he passed a levitating Hanna Schygulla through a metal ring to the strains of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity.” Portraying a kind of cyberpunk Sam Spade was all in a day’s work.

Photo courtesy Film Movement
While regularly appearing in his own films, Fassbinder continued to appear as an actor, on stage and screen, for other directors. He played the lead in Volker Schlöndorff’s movie of Brecht’s Baal (1969), was a black market operator in repertory cast regular Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves (1973), and appeared in his idol Douglas Sirk’s late short, Bourbon Street Blues (1978). Kamikaze ’89, brought to him by producer (and Gremm’s wife) Regina Ziegler, was based on Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, a 1964 novel by Per Wahlöö, a Swedish author whose detective stories had earned him a cult following by the time of his early death in 1975. Part of Fassbinder’s attraction to the character, his last major role, was that it was a star part—the sardonic Jansen appeared in every scene.

Fassbinder’s Lt. Jansen is introduced playing racquetball in a gym/discotheque, wearing a nylon tracksuit with leopard spots. Along with his catchphrase, “Avoid unnecessary remarks,” the leopard pattern is Jansen’s trademark: His revolver has leopard fur trim on the handle, he sleeps on leopard-print sheets, and he usually wears a leopard-print suit which Fassbinder was said to have kept after the shoot and occasionally wore out on the town.

Kamikaze ’89 was filmed in and around Berlin and Düsseldorf in August and September of 1981. The movie takes place eight years in a future whose predictions Fassbinder wouldn’t be around to see; he died within a year, before Kamikaze ’89’s release. In the film, the Federal Republic of Germany has become the world’s foremost economic superpower. The affirmative thumbs up is the new “Sieg Heil” of this shiny, happy, biodegradable Brave New World. All problems of industrial pollution and drug addiction have been solved, and all press, art, and entertainment are manufactured under the auspices of a megacorporation called, simply, “the Combine.”

No champions of high culture, the combine’s top-rated program involves contestants trying to outlast one another in a marathon of hysterical laughter. The mystery gets underway when a bomb threat takes Jansen to their headquarters, where he first hears of activities in a “special department” located on the 31st floor. The actual plotting is rather murky, though the film is vivid in quotidian moments, as when Fassbinder’s world-weary Jansen is seen masticating the dreariest, most flavorless microwaved sandwich in all of cinema.

Photo courtesy Film Movement

Gremm is credited as the director of Kamikaze ’89, though Fassbinder biographer Robert Katz—who’d polished the film’s original screenplay—states that Fassbinder was to some extent directing himself, in the manner of Orson Welles on the set of Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man. (By this point Fassbinder had swollen to nearly Wellesian proportions.) He also brought repeat collaborators with him, including Alexanderplatz cinematographer Xaver Schwartzenberger and several members of his repertory troupe: Onetime lover Günther Kaufmann plays Jansen’s sidekick; Brigitte Mira is a combine employee who takes a swan dive onto the pavement outside their glass box HQ; and Juliane Lorenz as the nurse tending to the police chief forever harassing Jansen through cameraphone devices. New elements in the mix include Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, who composed the original electronic soundtrack, and spaghetti western star Franco Nero as a mystery man who reveals the Combine’s game.

It transpires that the Combine has united Germany’s best and brightest artists, corralled them in the 31st-floor attic, and given them free rein to work as they like, quarantined from an outside world that their “subversive” publication will never reach. Jansen is too late to save the day, and ends the film in a despairing embrace with the heroic figure of Neil Armstrong. Fassbinder had only one more film in him, an adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle—a big-budget, phallus-strewn extravaganza of gay erotica featuring Nero, American star Brad Davis and, in a small role, Gremm. To the end, Fassbinder never cloistered himself, and in the shadow of his death, his final high-wire public performances are extraordinarily poignant.

Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Queens-based film critic who rarely isn’t thinking about R.W. Fassbinder.

Reprinted from May/June 2016 BAMbill.

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