Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze ‘89 gleefully engages the Eurotrash spirit of liberation from corporate culture. It places Berlin’s rabble-rousing nighthawks in the midst of a terrorist investigation that may-or-may-not implicate a fascistic media conglomerate known as The Combine. Caught in step with music and sex above politics, the libidinous partygoers remain oblivious to the rampant corruption that exists beyond the pulsating speakers.
The decidedly batshit plot pits thriving corporate interests against Jansen (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), a rogue lieutenant whose proclivities for leopard-print suits and bicarbonate soda mark him as a pastiche, taken in part from elements of garish German high fashion and the sadistic American detective (think Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, which was directed by German expat Fritz Lang). Kamikaze ‘89 is less a genre shrine to the neon-drenched future of skyscraper-sized advertisements for Coke than a satire on the preceding generation’s “conquest of cool,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Frank.
Based on Per Wahlöö‘s 1964 novel Murder on the 31st Floor, the film has a futuristic setting where the Federal Republic of Germany has become the world’s foremost superpower, having eliminated all waste and crime through “law and order.” The film’s initial tonal likeness to Escape from New York proves short-lived; whereas John Carpenter’s film conceives its premise around lo-fi action set pieces and a snarling antihero, Kamikaze ‘89 proffers Jansen as an overcompensating executioner whose violent actions mask his diminution in relation to these newly emerged forces of Big Business. Little illustrates Jansen’s shrunken significance better than an early scene in which he’s in an elevator to see the head honcho of The Combine, known as Blue Panther (Boy Gobert), and glimpses a bizarre reality TV show where contestants compete to see who can laugh the longest without stopping. Jansen studies the screen at an affectless remove—he doesn’t recognize this world and nor will the film grant him meaningful access to it.
Gremm integrates this future’s laws, rules, and attractions as the film unfolds, so that Jansen’s introduction to underground techno clubs (the film is scored by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese) and data that the aforementioned reality show is watched by 99.3% of households strikes him just as sharply as the viewer. Jansen’s investigation of a terrorist’s plot to bomb The Combine drives the narrative, but it’s mostly an excuse to take him on an odyssey into Berlin’s cyberpunk scenery, which he cruises through with his partner, Anton (Günther Kaufmann), when he’s not shaking down or torturing potential terrorists. In turn, Jansen becomes less an audience surrogate than a figure of violent depravity. After cornering a fleeing suspect, Jansen lifts his leopard-skin pistol and empties the clip into him at close range. Gremm undercuts the action-oriented potential of the violence by punctuating the slaying with Jansen, carried by a conveyor belt, giving the dead man a thumb’s up.
Jansen’s gesture mimics the police force’s logo seen throughout the film, which is clearly meant to suggest a new form of the “Heil Hitler” salute. Jansen’s reckless predilection for violent resolution is surely a stand-in for the reviled Stasi practices of the time. Jansen’s cover-up tactics (every person he kills is reported as a “premature death”) prove he’s less a protector of creed than an outright narcissist. When Elena Farr (Petra Jokisch), a potential witness in Jansen’s investigation, flashes some sketches she recently drew of him, he responds: “I like seeing pictures of me.” Jansen’s compulsion steadily seems to be less driven by order, then, than the push-pull between where he belongs in this new order of suits or sex—to potentially do away with “law and order” and lose himself in the night. That pervasive sense of forever-tainted nationalism finally aligns Kamikaze ‘89 with Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, especially as Blue Panther, lost in thought late in the film, asks in his typically off-kilter manner: “Sometimes I wonder who’s mad…me or others?”
The 4K scan on Film Movement’s new Blu-ray would be a grand slam were it not for the nagging presence of several blotches on the frame, present throughout, that look as though greasy fingerprints were covering the screen. Whether this is an accident of neglect or a problem that couldn’t be resolved isn’t clear, but it becomes a distraction as the film wears on, especially in brighter, outdoor sequences that make the defects even more glaring. Aside from this fairly significant blunder, the image looks fantastic, with sharpness, depth, and color timing all superbly transferred. The 2.0 stereo sound mix has some oomph, especially when Edgar Froese’s score is present.
Two vastly different documentaries are the major players here. The first, titled "Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year," is mostly an hour of footage taken by writer-director Wolf Gremm of Fassbinder on and around the set, whether he's rehearsing lines or speaking with other cast and crew. It's by no means an explanatory doc, and it functions more like indispensible behind-the-scenes footage than a standalone film. That cannot be said for "Wolf at the Door," a feature-length documentary that comes on a separate DVD, which follows Gremm after he's diagnosed with inoperable bone cancer. Its diarist, testimonial duration has little to do with Kamikaze '89, but as a document of its maker's deteriorating health, it's a remarkable film on its own. An audio commentary by producer Regina Ziegler is good for context, but considering it's clearly being read and not spoken spontaneously, there's little sense of discovery to be had throughout its slog toward completion.
This release contains what is arguably the strangest (or is it best?) four minutes on any Blu-ray release of 2016: several radio spots featuring John Cassavetes, who isn't so much singing the film's praises as giving, what sounds like, a drug-fueled testament to Fassbinder's art. There's no analysis or even discussion, just Cassavetes giving a sort-of performance piece as he imitates German-inflected English. It's truly bonkers, and perhaps worth purchasing the disc for those few minutes alone. Finally, essays by film critics Nick Pinkerton and Samuel B. Prime round out the disc.
Film Movement provides a stellar, if modestly flawed, Blu-ray transfer of Kamikaze ’89, a film that refuses to direct its nose-diving satire at any one target in particular, which makes it equal parts exhilarating and exhausting.