Near what he didn’t know was the end of his life, iconic New German Cinema filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder played a police detective in a near-future fascist utopia where everyone dresses in ‘80s New Wave/Punk duds and watches a TV marathon of contestants laughing like idiots. In the course of his investigations, Lt. Jansen shoots various people or throws them off buildings. These are recorded as “unexpected deaths” because society has no murders or suicides—on paper.
It’s a world officially devoid of crime except in the realm of fashion, and here we must mention Jansen’s unflattering leopard-print suit with red shirt and bolo tie, which he never takes off even in sleep. Less offensively, he’s a secret alcoholic, with a bottle hidden in a slot machine in his bizarrely appointed apartment because booze is illegal. So is lettuce, for unexplained reasons. Overweight and laconic to the point of telling everyone to avoid unnecessary remarks, our lieutenant becomes embroiled in impenetrable mysteries and conspiracies involving a media corporation and its mythical 31st floor.
In fact, the plot is taken from Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, a 1964 mystery by Per Wahlöö set in a futuristic country where print media is owned by one company. The script by writer/director Wolf Gremm and co-writer Robert Katz expands the concept with TV media and other additions. Katz, an American writer living in Italy, would write a Fassbinder biography. Gremm, a friend of Fassbinder, directed several features before moving into German TV movies. Gremm’s producer, Regina Ziegler, was also his wife, and she provides a sparse commentary track on this Blu-ray.
Like much German cinema of the time, this gives the impression of having been shot on a budget little better than cab fare, although the 4K digital restoration makes it look much better than the ‘80s VHS tape and probably better than it looked in cinemas. Apparently nothing could be done about specks on the lens during much of the filming. Still, we can appreciate the pastel textures, occasionally colorful sets like a celebrity’s flashy apartment, and flourishes like the showy circular camera moves in an early scene that imitates Fassbinder’s visual tropes.
Fassbinder fans will be aware that he’d directed a futuristic mystery for German TV, World on a Wire (1973), also set in a fancy institutional building. Although he didn’t direct Kamikaze 1989 (shortened on the box to Kamikaze ‘89 ), his presence dominates it with the aura of his style as much as the films of his protégés. In fact, he brought along a few of his repertory actors (Günther Kaufmann, Brigitte Mira) plus his photographer Xaver Schwarzenberger and editor (and last romantic partner) Juliane Lorenz, making this virtually a Fassbinder film manqué. Also present is Franco Nero, whom Fassbinder immediately cast in Querelle (1982).
Gremm, who had a part in Querelle, combined behind-the-scenes footage of the two projects into a one-hour documentary for German TV. It’s included as a bonus entitled Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year, although the original title really means “Last Works”, and it’s a worthy glimpse of a man at ease being directed by Gremm and a little tense on the set of Querelle as he directs Nero, Kauffmann and Brad Davis.
A second disc throws in Gremm’s documentary of his own battle with cancer in his last years, Wolf at the Door (2015), with much frank footage of himself in hospitals in between travels and visits with friends. Also included are American radio spots for Kamikaze made by John Cassavetes; it’s hard to imagine these pulling anyone into theatres, and they didn’t.
This is a game little upstart of a movie with a few clever ideas about the world just around the corner from 1982. Although the filmmakers had surely never heard of the term, it’s been retroactively labeled a cyberpunk film by Wikipedia, though it’s more a matter of punk style than cyber-content. A truly punk sci-fi film of the same year is Liquid Sky. Of course this was also the year of the seminal Blade Runner, the shadow of which obscured these other DIY efforts, yet the fact that all three movies emerged at once says something about what was in the air or the water. The music, by the way, is brooding electronica from Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream.
Fassbinder is the whole show, and it would surely be forgotten if it didn’t center on his world-weary performance as abetted by a crew that supported and admired him. As the rude star vehicle on which the film’s cult reputation rests, Film Movement’s Blu-ray offers its best possible presentation and context.