The single most difficult hurtle in bringing speculative fiction portrayals of future societies to the big screen is financial: without the backing of a major studio, it’s difficult to create a new world off the racks, whether its clothing, technology, vehicles, or architecture. So while major and mid-level studios can dazzle filmgoers with a future built from scratch in films such Blade Runner (1982) and Escape from New York (1981), the little guy has to make do with what’s available and compromises with a simplified version of the future that pretty much resembles our present—with a few splashes of “futuristic” accoutrements. Jean-Luc Godard’s neo-noir Alphaville, Elio Petri’s pop-art romp The 10th Victim (both 1965), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1967), and the American PBS-TV adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Lathe of Heaven (1980) are each fine examples of this celluloid ingenuity.
It’s important to understand these economic restraints to the creative process when watching Kamikaze ’89 as the reason for German director (and Fassbinder confidant) Wolf Gremm eschewing the serious-dramatic approaches of the three previous adaptations of Per Wahlöö’s 1964 best-selling, futurist neo-noir novel, Murder on the 31st Floor (twice for Russian TV as a mini-series and TV movie; then as a Hungarian TV movie), instead taking a black comedic, social satire approach that detracts from the novel’s serious sociopolitical and technocratic statements and bears little resemblance to those previous adaptations.
Regardless of its unorthodox approach with its garish character development and set design, Kamikaze ’89 garnered nominations and awards at the 1983 Fantasporto International Film Festival held in Portugal — which honors sci-fi, fantasy and horror films. As result of those festival honors, the film was marketed for an American release; the film subsequently flopped on the U.S art house circuit, grossing less than $25,000 in its initial release (but became a popular U.S VHS rental among sci-fi buffs and Fassbinder disciples).
In the “future” of 1989, Communism has fallen and the happy days of the good ol’ 1940’s — when the Federal Republic of Germany was the world’s dominate economic superpower — has returned. But since this is the “future” on a budget, the country has become a day glow, neon soaked, new-wave dystopia filled with Billy Idols, Boy Georges, and Madonnas prancing around in a low-budget Clockwork Orange-styled society. This is a world where male (female?) assassins dress in black lingerie and matching go-go boots — complete with ski masks and goggles. Women swim wearing leg warmers. Everyone mimics the police force’s logo seen throughout the film — a “thumbs up” — as some type of pseudo “Heil Hitler” salute in greeting each other. This is a world where citizens tool around on three-wheeled choppers, cops wear green crushed-velvet and peppermint-striped blazers, ambulances have six wheels, nurses wear gleaming-white lamé uniforms, and corporation executives make phone calls from Superman telephones (the handset cradles into his cape).
Meandering through this brain dead police-welfare state of citizens blinded by an endless stream of propaganda that proclaims “everything is perfect” is acclaimed German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He stars as Jansen, a rogue police lieutenant whose proclivities include a penchant for leopard-print suits and a revolver with a matching leopard-skinned grip (Why? The film never tells us). He works out in a gym — in leopard work out sweats — playing a solitary form of badminton-racket ball. He perpetually gulps down bicarbonate soda and relaxes on his lunch breaks in a dentist chair next to a ‘60s jukebox inside his rundown, paint-peeling “Bat Cave,” so to speak. And what’s the message behind the larger-than-life poster of Neil Armstrong on the Moon in his office, and the voice-over moon-transmission chatter between Armstrong and President Richard Nixon that Jensen listens to as he masturbates hip-thrusts into the poster, you ask?
Well, can you tell me the meaning behind the cackling villain-assassin dressed in a dinosaur costume (I think?) behind the driving wheel trying to run Jansen off the road with a car adorned bumper-to-bumper with the pages of comic books—complete with a full-sized Spider-Man plastered on the hood and a Captain America image stuck on the rear window? And what’s the deal with the Reality TV series watched by 99.3% of the population where contestants try to win prizes based on who laughs the longest — and the shows been going on for four days?
Yep. This film is way out there . . . and is only for those who enjoy the terminally weird and are brimming with patience to fulfill their Fassbinder fix — and decipher the hidden meanings, such as Gremm’s endless comic book references. All others are better off watching a Mark Gregory or Michael Sopkiw Italian-future world romp. Or, if you can handle the tomfoolery of Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), perhaps you’ll be able to stick with Kamikaze ’89’s black comedy slant to the bitter end. (It’s interesting to note that Ridley Scott’s similarly themed neo-noir sci-fi romp, Blade Runner, was issued a month prior to Kamikaze ‘89’s release.)
As in the future world of 1975’s Rollerball, Germany’s new totalitarian government-corporation has pacified and dehumanized the citizens through the legalized use of barbiturates and resolved all of the country’s social and political ills. There’s no more pollution. There’s no more murder or suicide (only “accidental death”). Alcohol and gardening (because the seeds are poisoned) are outlawed. But everyone is so miserable, they get drunk anyway . . . and they get locked up and fined . . . and get plastered again. And the wheel goes round and round and it all goes into the corporate coffers. And the rest that don’t get tanked, they garden the illegal seeds and eat the spoils in an act of suicide . . . oh, “accidental death,” so says the corporate edict. Everything is fine. Everyone is laughing on TV, after all.
Yep, you guessed it. Everyone is ignorant to the unhappiness perpetuated by this Soylent Green-inspired government-corporate . . . because the corporate also controls the broadcast and print media and perpetuates a “Group Think” mentality through a nascent forefather to the Internet via a media-soaked culture controlled by the few to manipulate the many. Things have gotten so out of control that Konzernchef, the Trumpian-Rupert Murdock leader of the family-run corporate concern, is immortalized as a villainous superhero, “The Blue Panther,” in a line of comic books published in protest against corporate regime . . . and he loves the attention. (Ack! No “Orange Panther” comments, wise guy!)
It turns out the underground protest comic is the product of a handful of intellectuals that ran the corporation’s Orwellian “cultural department” from the perch of the corporate headquarter’s hidden “31st floor.” Reasoning the corporate is evil, the corporate rogues work a phantom terrorist group, “Krysmopompas,” to liberate the citizens. When their activities to overthrow the government crescendos with a fake bomb threat that result in the first “real” suicide-murder (of a corporate executive ready to spill the beans that takes a header off the “31st Floor”) in four years, they call in the world’s foremost and successful detective — Jansen — to solve the case. But the family-run corporate — and the in-the-pocket police department — doesn’t want the case solved . . . the world can’t know what going on up on the mysterious “31st Floor.”
Sweden-based crime novelist Per Wahlöö is best known for his series of ten best-selling novels regarding the exploits of Stockholm police detective Martin Beck published between 1965 and 1975. In 1971, one of those books, The Laughing Policeman (an English translation of Den skrattande polisen originally published in 1968) was adapted into the Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern starring film, The Laughing Policeman (1973).
Film Movement Classics honored Kamikaze ’89 with a 2016, 4K restoration issued to Blu-ray. You can watch the full movie for free on TubiTV and enjoy the Edgar Froese (of Tangerine Dream; Thief, Risky Business, and Grand Theft Auto V) soundtrack on You Tube. The 1980 Russian film version — for comparison — is also on You Tube.
The sad post-script to the film: Fassbinder died six weeks before the film was released. As you watch, you can clearly see the heavy and bloated Fassbinder was in poor health and looks much older that his 37 years. The professional momentum Gremm gained from his previous feature, Fabian (1980), being chosen as West Germany’s official submission to the 53rd Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (it wasn’t nominated) was lost. While critically lauded, the box office failure of Kamikaze ’89 on the European circuit lead to it being Wolf Gremm’s last feature film; he then worked strictly in German television.