Friday, July 1, 2011

Kamikaze '89 (1982)

Kamikaze '89 (1982) is one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last artistic endeavors. Subsequent to the release of his Lili Marteen (1981), Fassbinder was offered the lead role by producer Regina Ziegler who was developing the project for her husband, director Wolf Gremm. (175) Robert Katz, co-screenwriter of Kamikaze and author of Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, describes Gremm as the director who held the record for winning the German film critics' Sour Lemon award more than any other director. (175) The Sour Lemon is awarded to the director who made the "worst film of the year." (175) Fassbinder was not deterred by Gremm's reputation and accepted the part but would back out of the role when he read Gremm's script. (175, 176) Katz was subsequently hired as a screenwriter to rewrite Gremm's script "in order to broaden the film's appeal and tap the English-language market." (176) Katz suggested that the source material, from the novel Murder on the Thirty-first Floor by Swedish author, Per Wahloo, set in the 1960s, be "projected into the near future of the 80s." (175, 176) Juliane Lorenz suggested the title Kamikaze while Gremm added the "'89" to "connote the future." (176) (All parenthetical notations previous to this statement are citations to pages from of Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, by Robert Katz and Peter Berling, Jonathan Cape, London: 1987.)

Kamikaze '89, today, is little-seen and little-discussed. When the film is discussed, Fassbinder attracts the majority of the attention. Although it should be noted that Kamikaze's soundtrack by Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream has developed quite a cult following. Cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger, who shot Berlin Alexanderplatz and Fassbinder's subsequent directorial efforts until his death, lensed Kamikaze; and Fassbinder regulars, such as Brigitte Mira, who appears in a small role, and G√ľnther Kaufmann, who appears in a fairly substantial role, for example, fill the scenery. Above all, however, Kamikaze '89 is perhaps notable or notorious, even in its obscurity, for Fassbinder's attire. Director Wolf Gremm explains:

"When I plan a film, I often think in terms of animal images for the characters. In conceiving Kamikaze '89, I always had Fassbinder in mind as a leopard, but I never told him this. At the first costume fitting I showed him fifteen possible futuristic detective and police costumes of very different styles. It happened like this: He came in. I was smoking a cigar. I offered him a Camel cigarette. He looked over the costumes. I smiled. Then he looked at me and smiled too. He said, 'You like this leopard one.' And I said, 'Don't you?' And he said, 'Let me try it on.' He looked at himself in the mirror and said, 'I love me. Now I'm Lieutenant Jansen.' From this point on, we never had to discuss the style of the film." (Love is Colder Than Death, p.177)

I wish that I could grab screenshots of Fassbinder in his leopard suit, but unfortunately Kamikaze '89 is only available on VHS in the U.S. (There is, however, a DVD released in Germany.) The leopard suit that Fassbinder wears throughout Kamikaze forms a part of an ensemble: his dashboard of his police vehicle is covered in the material; his exercise outfit with matching headband that he wears at the police club is also leopard skin; and even the handle of Jansen's revolver is covered with the soft material. According to Katz, Fassbinder liked the "phony leopard-skin" suit so much that he kept it and wore it from time to time in the remaining months of his life. (Love is Colder Than Death, p.178)


Germany. 1989. Society has solved all of its problems. For example, there is no unemployment and no pollution. Society runs like a machine with everything having its essential place. Mass-media is controlled by one powerful group, the Combine, who are located in a high-rise tower (which from the film appears that it can be seen from anywhere in the city.) One day, the group receives a bomb threat, and Police Lieutenant Jansen (Fassbinder) is dispatched to the Combine building to investigate. A note was sent to the Combine on particularly unique paper revealing the bomb's presence in the building. Jansen evacuates the building, and the bomb threat turns out to be false. Jansen's superior commands him to find the suspect behind the would-be bombing within four days.


In my view, knowing that Fassbinder would die soon after the completion of Kamikaze '89 (and prior to its release) gives the film a more tragic air. It is difficult to take any character seriously donning a leopard-skin suit, surrounded by neon motifs of the 1980s with accompanying colors such as hot pink and turquoise. The future, at least in cinema, is more palatable and hence believable when the color scheme is somber or dark, such as in Minority Report (2002). The costumes and set design of Kamikaze '89 are stimulating and are supposed to evoke feelings (echoing Ms. Lauper) of fun, but Fassbinder plays Jansen as a police officer floating through a completely mechanical and predictable society. Jansen holds a streak of forty-plus cases where he has successfully solved a crime. The successful completion of a case is the only thing that he has to look forward to. Jansen often tells the other characters "avoid asking unnecessary questions" or "avoid saying unnecessary statements": in his view, any attempts to be anything other than predictable is futile. The most popular show on television, pushed upon the masses by the Combine, is the Laughing Contest: twenty-four hours a day, a contest is shown where its participants laugh. The one standing last and still laughing wins. Demoralizing imagery just about everywhere in the city.


The traditional investigation with Kamikaze '89 isn't particularly viewer-friendly. Often my cinematically-trained mind passively watches the story, waiting for specific lines of dialogue or cues of dramatic music in order to recognize that a clue has been found or a breakthrough in the mystery has been had. For example, the paper upon which the note detailing the bomb threat is the second half of an award, handed out by the Combine to specific individuals. Hence, the paper is rare, since the award has only been given to about twenty-five people (a manageable list of suspects). Of importance is that the half of the letter was hand-torn and not cut with scissors. During a later scene, when Jansen is questioning the head of the Combine's nephew, who is now confessing to sending the letter, Jansen asks him where are the scissors that he used to cut the award in half. The nephew responds by saying that they are in his desk and that he has many pairs. Jansen, by this admission by the nephew, knows that his confession is false. No revelatory, contradicting dialogue comes from Jansen to impeach him; no dramatic music plays over this damning admission; and no cross-cut to an earlier scene as reminder come at all. I watched Kamikaze '89 several times over the past week, and it took me a while to identify this change in the investigation. Yes, I am that vegetative when I watch films. When Franco Nero appears near the end of Kamikaze '89, his character provides the most important information towards the plot and the investigation. However, despite Nero and Fassbinder giving very good performances, the impact and weight of Nero's dialogue are only really felt (and the viewer subsequently made aware) with subsequent viewings. I suppose Gremm wasn't that adept as a director.


One of the saddest scenes in Kamikaze '89 is Fassbinder alone in his apartment. He pulls a whitebread sandwich from the microwave and takes a bite. Its flavor must be quite disappointing according to his reaction. He leans against a table and eats the sandwich anyway. He arms himself with his camera (a futuristic police tool) and his gun and stares into space. Fassbinder looks like a bloated and fat drunk, dejected about what the future holds for him. The ending of the investigation is all that he has to look forward to, and his prospects are somewhat grim. There has to be something of value to carry him along. At the end of Kamikaze '89, Jansen stands alone, looking at the camera and laughing as the credits roll.

3 comments:

Alex B. said...

Thanks for the review. I am interested in learning more about this rare film.

Hans A. said...

You're welcome, Alex. This is a film which I would love to hear your thoughts.

Dr.LargePackage said...

Fabulous review, Hans. The 80's are like a caged leopard: they must be let out from time to time in order to stay alive. Quasi-philosophical statements with no apparent meaning are large and in charge.