Kamikaze 89 [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Film Movement
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd June 2024).
The Film

In the near future of 1989 when superpower The Federal Republic of Germany has solved all of its ills – from alcoholism and drugs (and vegetarians) to pollution – and all art, news, and entertainment is produced by the monolithic agency "The Combine" controlled by CEO "Blue Panther" (Shadow of Angels' Boy Gobert). When The Combine gets a bomb threat set for two in the afternoon in revenge for a murder ascribed to Blue Panther, the unlikely police response is Lieutenant Jansen filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder), an alcoholic burnout in a leopard-print suit, and his long-suffering partner Anton (Berlin Alexanderplatz's Günther Kaufmann). Despite the blasé response of "Blue Panther", his scat-singing vice president (Jörg Holm), the CEO's playboy nephew (Tatort's Richy Müller), and the staff supervisor (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul's Brigitte Mira), Jansen orders the evacuation of the massive building's five thousand employees. Two o'clock passes without incident, but Jansen's wheelchair-bound boss (Arnold Marquis, German dubber of tough guy actors John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and Charles Bronson) – who broadcasts his orders by video – treats it as a credible threat and gives Jansen a deadline of ninety-six hours to solve the case for unspecified reasons.

Although the observant Jansen has some unfounded suspicions about the CEO's current mistress/former Playmate Elena Farr (Petra Jokisch, who would actually be a Playboy Playmate in 1984), the CEO's nephew, and the staff supervisor's claim that The Combine would be blamed for the explosion since their range of interests is outgrowing the building, the only solid lead is the gold-dusted paper on which the threat was composed which is used solely for printing The Combine's single annual employee award; especially since The Combine has no competition with 93.99% of the TV audience, and thus, no enemies. Given free access to all areas of The Combine, including the legendary thirty-first floor spoken of in whispers amidst the staff and in jest by the management, Jansen finds his investigation taking him to not only behind the scenes of The Combine – their hit show a twenty-four hour televised annual laughing contest in which contestants spend days at the expense of their health trying to win – and into Berlin's neon-lit underworld in search of the terrorist who may or may not be the mythical Krysmopompas who fights Blue Panther in comics produced by the underground that depict the CEO of flouting the law with rape, murder, and other crimes. When the staff supervisor who was to prepare Jansen a list of the recipients suffers from a "premature death" by taking a swan dive off the top of the building, Jansen narrows his suspects down to current and ex-employees who have received the award including former TV hostess Barbara (Nicole Heesters), artist Zerling (Veronika Voss' Hans Wyprächtiger), and journalist Weiss (Django's Franco Nero). As Jansen's deadline looms, he begins to get the suspicion that no one from The Combine to his own department's higher ups actually wants the case solved – especially when The Combine produces a culprit who Jansen quickly determines has made a false confession but submits him to psychological torture anyway – but Jansen is as sure of the amoral CEO's character as he is that the bomber is going to carry out his threat.

Loosely based on the novel "Murder on the 31st Floor" by famed Swedish mystery writer Per Wahlöö (The Laughing Policeman) – as adapted by director Wolf Gremm (Fabian) and novelist Robert Katz (Massacre in Rome) – Kamikaze 89 is a futuristic detective thriller more akin stylistically to Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville or Lars Van Trier's The Element of Crime than American studio fare like Blade Runner (although the film does share a certain neo-noir ambience and Tangerine Dream's Edgar Froese does provide a similar alternately droning and ethereal score). The mystery itself is rather feebly structured but allows for much quirkiness from Fassbinder's interactions with suspects and his onscreen and offscreen partner Kaufmann, with increasingly funny iterations of Jansen's catch-phrase "Refrain from any unnecessary remarks." The solution to the mystery is not so intriguing as the secret of the thirty-first floor, which is no less insidious for the ways in which it recalls the country's manipulation of the arts and the media towards its own ends in an earlier historical period. The film also attained some notoriety as Fassbinder's first lead role (on film) and final acting role since he passed away a month before the film's release while working on Querelle (from the Jean Genet novel) which would also be released after his death. The mobile cinematography is the work of Fassbinder-regular Xaver Schwarzenberger (Lola) while film film was cut by his regular editor Juliane Lorenz (The Marriage of Maria Braun) and scored by Tangerine Dreams' Edgar Froese.


Previously released by Film Movement with a bonus DVD in 2016 – Kamikaze 89 features a 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen encode that nicely conveys the film's look in the bright whites and reflective surfaces of Combine setting (actually Berlin's Landesversicherungsanstalt building), the cracked stone and peeling paint of the derelict former American military buildings and Berlin backstreets, as well as the smoke and neon ambience of the city's clubs. Clarity is such that smudges on the lens are evident in some of the brighter daylight shots. The fluorescent tinge seems to be intentional in some shots given the futuristic setting and aesthetic choice of other sci-fi art films of the period. The source material has optically-printed German subtitles for some English audio of Neil Armstrong's telephone conversation with President Richard Nixon.


The original German mono mix is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 that is most engaging when Froese's music dominates. Dialogue is always clear but this is a strange breed of science fiction film where the sound design is as naturalistic as the settings. Optional English subtitles are without any obvious errors.


The film is intermittently accompanied by audio commentary by producer Regina Ziegler – who usually starts speaking at the beginning of scenes or sequences – who reveals that her late husband Gremm had Fassbinder in mind for the lead from the start, and was pleased to discover that Fassbinder knew of Wahlöö's book and had also desired to film it. She reveals that the title was changed to Kamikaze 89 because the adaptation no longer bore a close resemblance to the source novel. She discusses the film's locations and stocking them with movie memorabilia collected by Gremm and herself, and notes her own casting choices, as well as the production's finance issues (with Gremm adapting Jansen's remark to the staff supervisor about the financial loss over evacuating the building being no concern of his). She also recalls that Fassbinder insisted on being paid in cash every week, and that he stopped working the week the payment was late and returned as soon as he was paid. She also reveals that Nero agreed to appear in the film in exchange for its Italian rights where the film was well-received.

Of equal value to the commentary is director Gremm's documentary "Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year" (59:59) which aired on German TV in October 1982 and seems to have started out as a behind the scenes piece for the film but came to encompass his collaboration with Fassbinder on the film and his behind the scenes coverage of Fassbinder's final film Querelle when the director passed away. Narrator Gremm recalls that Fassbinder worked on pre-production of Veronika Voss during his downtime, and that the director was a fan of action movies even though he rarely included anything that required complex stunt choreography or special effects in his own films (this over footage of the staging of the film's car chase and crash). Of Querelle, we see the massive sets meant to represent a homoerotic visual impression of the city of Brest with phallic turrets on the walls facing the sea and a giant cyclorama backdrop of a dusk sky, the staging of a camera angle stalled by arguments over the continuity, and Fassbinder barking at actor/assistant director Harry Baer (Rulers of the City) who was in charge of directing the extras.

Also included on the first disc are John Cassavetes' Kamikaze 89 Radio Spots (4:24), the film's theatrical trailer (1:34), and previews for other titles.

Dropped from the 2024 edition is the bonus DVD which featured Gremm's 2015 film memoir "Wolf at the Door" on his three year battle with prostate cancer – for which he was given eight months to live when diagnosed in 2011 – that played after his death on Germany's RBB Network.


The 2024 edition also ports over the booklet with essays by Nick Pinkerton - who gives an overview of Fassbinder's acting roles for other filmmakers and drawing on remarks from Fassbinder's biographer about the degree of his involvement in Gremm's film including directing himself - and Samuel B. Prime who contributes a brief piece on the soundtrack. This standard edition streets from regular retailers in July but is currently available directly from Vinegar Syndrome with a special limited edition embossed and spot gloss slipcover designed by Adam Juresko limited to 2,000 copies.


The tagline for Kamikaze 89 "Ninety-six hours to crack his last case ...his time's already up" teases a very conventional-seeming thriller pic that would turn out to be one of filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last works (even though he didn't even direct it).


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