About an hour and 13 minutes into “Kamikaze 89” (1982), director and writer Wolf Gremm’s manic view of a dystopian future, loyal and competent assistant Anton (Günther Kaufmann), says to his mercurial boss, Police-lieutenant Jansen (the great auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder), “Tell me, what the hell is going on?” A BMW 2002 that looks like it was finger painted is intentionally side-swiping their Mercedes as they speed down the autobahn. It’s the least of their problems.
What the hell is going on, indeed. “Kamikaze 89” is a highly irregular version of a police procedural, but the often hard to follow (and possibly irrelevant) plot isn’t the reason to watch. The fun is in the outrageous costumes, appealingly weird future world sets, sleek and/or crumbling, DP Xaver Schwarzenberger’s photography, particularly an incredible 360º shot, and most of all, in Fassbinder’s performance, his last before his untimely (but not entirely shocking) death in June 1982.
Germany is the “richest country in the world…everything is green” and the population is mind-numbed by the shadowy Combine (headquartered in its 30-story building–or are there 31 floors?) which creates and disseminates all “entertainment and information on TV and in the press.” A bomb threat is received by the corporation and the head of police dispatches super sleuth Jansen, who has successfully solved all of the cases in his illustrious career, giving him 96 hours to close this one.
Fassbinder voraciously chews the poppy scenery (TVs are omnipresent, all seemingly tuned to the finals of the–very creepy–annual Laughing Contest). He wears an increasingly dirty-looking leopard-print suit and an orange shirt with a bolo tie. His hair is greasy, he drinks alcohol (verboten, as are vegetables, graffiti and video tape) and a perpetual cigarette hangs from his mouth. But his skills are top-notch as he wanders through public and private spaces, searchings for clues and grilling suspects. Racing the deadline, he solves the case and retreats to his office, with one wall covered with a giant blow-up of the iconic image of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
Although I had photographed Wolf Gremm standing in front of the “Kamikaze 89” poster shortly before the release of his film in Germany and had seen almost all of Fassbinder’s films (including “Eight Hours are Not a Day” and one of his masterpieces, “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” twice), until earlier this week, “Kamizke 89” had remained Holy Grailish.
“Kamizke 89,” in a new 4K restoration, opens today at BAMcinématek and runs through Thursday, June 9. Regina Ziegler, producer of “Kamikaze ’89” and Wolf Gremm’s widow, will introduce tonight’s 7:15 pm screening.