One of the great pleasures of the pre-internet era was stumbling on a lost masterpiece at your local repertory cinema. One of the greater pleasures was stumbling on a lost film that’s totally nuts. Such a film is arriving in New York this weekend, screening at BAMcinématek from June 3 through June 9. You would do well to seek it out — and if you’re hoping to see it elsewhere, some other time, good luck, since it’s traditionally very hard to track down. It’s not streaming anywhere, though you might be able to get your hands on a DVD from Germany, assuming you have a DVD player that handles Region 2. Or a DVD player at all.
The film is Kamikaze ’89, a dystopian vision of 1989 that was filmed in 1982, involving leopard-skin suits, cross-dressing assassins, corporate conspiracy, porn stars, houseboats, and a fantastic droning-techno soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The film is directed by Wolf Gremm and is notable historically for its star: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his final acting role. Fassbinder stars as Jansen, a disheveled cop who wears only one outfit through the entire film (the aforementioned leopard suit, which matches his gun’s grip and the interior of his car), smokes constantly and sweats astonishingly, all while trying to unravel a bomb plot — and nothing further I say here about the story will matter, because the story doesn’t matter at all. The best reason to see this film is as a relic of a kind of singularly wacko aesthetic vision that was possible pre-internet. The other best reason to see it is because it’s completely bonkers and entirely charming.
For starters, the film is soaked in neon; there’s no way the director of Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn, for example, hasn’t screened this film multiple times, or slept with a copy of it under his pillow for years. Kamikaze ’89 is also a reminder of how the future looked way back in the early '80s, long before we knew how the future would look: The film is wall-to-wall with flickering cathode-ray-tube TV screens, vinyl knee-highs, artistically cantilevered hairstyles, shoulder pads wide enough to land a helicopter on, and a “portable” video-phone that Jansen carries in his suit jacket and that’s roughly the size of a laptop. (Ironically, even as '80s-era filmmakers tried to predict future fashions, they underestimated the extent to which the future would look a lot like retro '80s.) When the Film Society of Lincoln Center screened the film back in 2014, a blurb described it as “a uniquely chilling prophecy.” I think you’d have to work very hard to find this film chilling or prophetic. Unique, though — it’s definitely that.
One promise of art in the internet age is a boundless diversity of vision — all sorts of aesthetics now have an easy platform through which they can be shared with the world. But there’s a flattening effect as well, as everyone has access to the same vast catalogue of influences, and so the dominant aesthetic inevitably becomes one of pastiche. (See Refn, Nicholas Winding, above.) It’s difficult, in that context, to deliver a truly jarring, distinctive visual fever dream that looks as if it was cooked up in some secret lab somewhere, by a bunch of mad alchemists who were tripping on their own product. But Kamikaze ’89 does exactly that. It incorporates many early '80s proto-cyber-punk visual tropes, but the film on the whole is weird and wonderful in a way that reminds us of a time when, well, films like Kamikaze '89 weren’t readily available at the click of a mouse. The internet does weird so well that weird barely feels weird anymore. But here’s a film that’s truly, deeply, gloriously weird — in a way that can be increasingly difficult to find, let alone produce.