Prolific and multi-talented as he was, Rainer Werner Fassbinder rarely cast himself as the lead in his own films. The last time he did was for 1975's Fox and His Friends, and seven years passed before he took the role of Lt. Jansen in Wolf Gremm's Kamikaze 1989, one of several projects Fassbinder worked on in the last year of his life and the first to be released posthumously. With his leopard-print suit (and matching car interior), red shirt, and bolo tie, Jansen should be every inch the swaggering police detective with a perfect record of cases solved, but it's hard to take him completely seriously when he chides his assistant Anton (former lover-turned-frequent costar Günther Kaufmann) for not exercising when he himself has a gut, which he's not working off no matter how much racquetball he plays at the Cop Club.
The case that has the potential to ruin Jansen's perfect record is opened when he responds to a bomb threat at The Combine, a monolithic media empire housed in a single tower block that is the sole source of news and entertainment (which are largely indistinguishable from one another) for the quasi-totalitarian state of West Germany in 1989. Headed up by a CEO nicknamed Blue Panther (Boy Gobert), whose comic-book nemesis is Krysmopompas ("The Spirit of Evil"), The Combine's highest-rated program is a televised laughing contest, so naturally Jansen's chief (Arnold Marquis) is eager for him to wrap things up in just four days, which Gremm helpfully counts down on screen. Leads are difficult to come by, though, especially after The Combine's personnel manager (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven star Brigitte Mira) mysteriously falls to her death from the 13th floor (not a suicide, but rather a "premature death" as the state euphemistically puts it). Jansen manages to see through the diversions and dodge the occasional assassination attempt by hooded transvestites to get to the bottom of things, though.
For years, I've known Kamikaze 1989 exclusively through its soundtrack, which was composed by Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. Froese's electronic soundscapes mesh well with Gremm's neon aesthetic, which doesn't attempt to predict the future so much as capitalize on what looked vaguely futuristic at the time he made the film. (In this way, he took a page or two out of Fassbinder's World on a Wire, made one decade earlier and likewise an adaptation of a cult science fiction novel.) Even so, with its videophones (the only way Jansen sees his superior until the very end), camera rings (capable of recording anything at a moment's notice), and a numbed populace grown accustomed to constantly being watched, this film remains shockingly contemporary.