Kamikaze 1989 (1982)

(aka, Kamikaze 89)


“It would be the first in four years.”

“Sorry, I meant ‘premature death.'”

You hear a lot about the French New Wave, and the Czech New Wave, but not as much has been said about the German New Wave of the seventies.

Well, technically, the “Neuer Deutscher Film,” or New German Cinema.

But it’s the same basic idea.

At a time when German Cinema was largely involved in turning out lots of “Krimi” (low budget crime and mystery films), Edgar Wallace movies, and even a few Euro horrors, a small radical group of directors was trying to reinvent cinema in their own distinctly German way.

Now you’ve probably heard of Werner Herzog, perhaps as much because of his long string of cameos (including, yes, that one in The Mandalorian) as the handful of odd movies he’s directed over his long career.  You might even have seen a few films from Wim Wenders, who was perhaps the most successful of the group and made such films as Until the End of the World, Wings of Desire, and Paris, Texas. If you pay attention to what Criterion has out, you may have heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who is perhaps best remembered for Berlin Alexanderplatz and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, although he made 41 features before his death at 37.  You might even have heard of Alexander Kluge, some of whose rather odd Lo Fi films have finally been released here in the U.S.

But you probably haven’t heard of Wolf Gremm.

He wasn’t as flamboyant as the others and his long career as a director and producer hasn’t attracted as much attention here in the U.S., but Kamikaze 1989 is as fine a film as any of the Neuer Deutschers ever made.  It is a strange, low budget effort with a futuristic setting which is almost entirely a question of the film’s bizarre wardrobe choices.

It also stars Fassbinder as the Leopard skin-clad (their ideas of what constitute plainclothes in the future are obviously quite different from ours!) Polizeileutnant Jansen, a detective who has never failed to solve a case.  While he appeared in many of his own films (often in unbilled cameos) — and even starred in a few of them — as far as I can tell this is the only time he played the lead in someone else’s film.  However, this isn’t his first science fiction film, as he actually wrote and directed one of his own, the incredible reality-bending cyberpunk mystery, World on a Wire.

Like World on a Wire, Kamikaze 1989 was heavily influenced by Goddard’s Alphaville, a highly eccentric Science Fiction film without a huge special effects budget.  Instead, Goddard found its “futuristic” locations in some of the newer buildings in 1960s Paris.

Although, other than the massive corporate headquarters of “The Combine,” most of the future of Kamikaze 1989 looks a bit seedy and rundown.

Which leads us to another curious point, that the story is apparently taking place in 1989, a mere seven years after its release.  And yet, major social, political and economic changes have taken place in that time which have essentially remade the country.  After all, thanks to “The Combine,” all of our problems have been solved, everything is perfect, alcohol has been banned because it causes so many problems, and fortunately The Combine controls all 46 channels so we can all be entertained by their non-stop laughing contest.

And, of course, no one is allowed to point out that everyone is drinking heavily to help them cope with this perfect world.

Someone has made a bomb threat against The Combine’s main office, but Jansen has been told to treat his investigation as if it were a state secret.  What’s worse, he’s been given four days to solve the case, and it is vitally important that he cleans it up before the deadline.

But The Combine isn’t too happy with his investigation, the wrong person confesses and one of the top officials is either murdered or commits suicide.

But then there is also the mysterious Thirty-First floor, where The Combine is working on some secret project.

Although the building only has thirty floors…

It might seem at first glance that a lot of the changes have been made because they look cool (like the official police VW Trike chopper Jansen’s assistant rides) but the police have somehow morphed into a white-suited therapeutic agency (complete with lighted batons), sending criminals off to rehabilitation, while the detectives are curiously turned-on and psychedelic in their dress code (right down to the leopard skin pistol grip on Jansen’s service revolver).  There is also a lot of fear being sold by this society, as seeds and growing your own food plants have apparently been banned for fear they might spread disease, and the old police headquarters will have to be sterilized when they move out.

The story itself was adapted from Mord på 31:a våningen (Murder on the Thirty-First Floor) a novel by Swedish mystery writer, Per Wahlöö.  I don’t think I ever read that particular Wahlöö novel and I have no idea how close an adaptation this is.

Viewed as a mystery, it works quite well, as Jansen works in a very individualistic and brutal sort of way, plowing through the story with little subtlety, and with his aim clearly on what he is after.  There is a major clue, which brings him into contact with a lot of the people who work for The Combine, and he has no hesitation about torturing the nephew of the most powerful man in The Combine when he confesses.

However, the implications of the ending really aren’t that clear until you stop and think about them after the film is over.  There is a lot of satire and social commentary here, but it is handled well enough that it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the film.  Despite the leftist bias one expects from a group of radical filmmakers — and which was certainly true of Wahlöö’s work — the dystopic future seems more like our modern socialist nanny state, with a powerful, monolithic and deeply connected corporation calling most of the shots.

Perhaps the best summary of Jansen is his repeated insistence to his assistant that he “Refrain from unnecessary comments.”  Fassbinder is magnificent in the role, making this odd combination of brutality and conscience, of independence and an almost craven deference to his boss, work as a real character.  He was notorious for his outrageous and out of control self-indulgences and within a year of making this film he would discover the hard way what happened when you combined way too many sleeping pills with far too much cocaine and die in his sleep.  I suspect the after credits scene, involving Fassbinder and a life-sized poster of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon, is a deliberate nod to his fans and critics, one last bit of implied excess which doesn’t make sense within the film.

Not that I think he knew this would be his final moment on screeen.

And I will note that it is far from clear what “Kamikaze 1989” actually means.  But perhaps, with a film like this, it really doesn’t matter.

Now you could enjoy this film as a straightforward thriller — Gremm fills it with suspense and keeps the action moving throughout.  He even has a score from Tangerine Dream, and puts Franco Nero into the mix in a minor part.  But this is also a satiric film which takes a decidedly jaundiced look at our modern world and presents us with a thoroughly unpleasant view of where the world was going, which seems a bit prescient right at the moment.

If you are into this sort of radical filmmaking, you will love this film — but then, so will a lot of people who are merely looking for an interesting thriller that is a little…different.

Although I’ll warn you that it is in German, with subtitles.

But don’t let that stop you.

And best of all, thanks to Arrow film, who seem to be responsible for some of the best “new” releases of long lost films and little seen treasures, you can now buy this one on Blu Ray.

Or watch it for free on Tubi…

Buy or watch at Amazon (Paid link):



Check out our new Feature (Updated February 16, 2022):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!



This time featuring a brilliant lost film by Brett Piper…

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