Rainer Werner Fassbinder remains one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. The way he filmed actors, especially women and their characters’ emotions, was incredible. His close-ups revealed the inner torments of his characters’ existences. However, he wasn’t just a legendary director; he was also a gifted actor, albeit unorthodox one at that. Director Wolf Gremm’s 1982 long-lost cyberpunk thriller Kamikaze ’89 showed how much Fassbinder actually knew the skills of an actor. Unfortunately, this was his final acting role before his untimely death from a drug overdose, which ended what could have been a very promising acting career for one of the most famous directors of the German New Wave.
In the film, Fassbinder plays Jansen, a leopard-plaided and tired police lieutenant investigating a mysterious bomb threat in a wacked-out, dystopian future filled with cross-dressing assassins, porn stars, and corporate conspiracies in a music video-like atmosphere. The deeper he goes into the investigation, the more frazzled he becomes after he discovers that not everything is what it appears to be.
The plot, albeit extremely weird and abstract, is not the focus of the film. The real essence is the way the film really captures the vision of a world pre-internet with its early ’80s flair for vinyl knee-highs, punk hairstyles, and freakishly large shoulder pads. The fact that it was released around the same time as Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner, is ironic considering how accurately bleak the future may look like. To call Kamikaze ’89 weird and hypnotic is a huge understatement. The use of blazing neon symbolizes a certain time and place that we we’re just not particularly ready for.
Fassbinder’s performance is a total 180 from his role as Brigitte Mira’s son-in-law in his 1974 masterwork Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In Kamikaze ’89, there is no vanity and glamourous aspect whatsoever, as he looks tired, drunk, and almost without color, except for his retro leopard suit that he wears throughout the film. I don’t know if that was Gremm’s intention for the look of the character, or if it was Fassbinder’s doing, but it certainly captured the spirit of the broken masculinity that no other film dared to explore. It is one of the many reasons that this film remains that rare gem in film history.
Being a lost film, there was a kickstarter to finally release a new upgraded edition, and Film Movement definitely came to rescue. The restoration is immaculate, making the film look new again and available to American audiences. The special features on the Blu-ray are particularly amazing: Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year is an emotionally revealing documentary by Gremm that showcases Fassbinder during the last year of his life, and there’s a very illuminating commentary by producer Regina Ziegler as she talks about the making and distribution of the film, among other amazing tidbits.
There are also rare radio spots by famous director John Cassavetes, the film’s original trailer, and trailers for other films released by Film Movement: Violent Cop, The Quiet Earth, and Once Were Warriors. Probably the best special feature is Gremm’s intimate film memoir Wolf at the Door,which is on the bonus DVD accompanying this already incredible release. To me this is probably one of my top-ten favorite releases of the year!
Kamikaze ’89, of all of its ravishing and visual weirdness, had something to say, especially about the urban bleakness that was the ’80s, and how accurate the darkness that still surrounds that decade. It is also a farewell testament to Fassbinder, who remains an unique talent that we film lovers still miss and whose work that we are all influenced by. Thank you, Film Movement, and definitely thank you, Fassbinder!