A three-hour-plus sci-fi experience, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), seemed to have existed as mere legend in the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as it has rarely screened since its debut on German TV in 1973. The fact that it focused on virtual worlds within computers added to a brewing interest over the years, as it seemed to foretell the current age we live in. More prescient than ever, it is finally making the rounds at art house cinemas across the US.
However, as prophetic as this film seems to be, this ain’t no Matrix or Blade Runner, two films I have read it often compared to. Casual Fassbinder fans or world cinema fans and especially fans of the Matrix should be fairly warned: This is Fassbinder at his most sluggish.* World on a Wire’s pace may present nothing short of a challenge for those accustomed to the “bullet-time” shooting of today’s sci-fi. The long pauses the actors seem to take between sentences, as if everyone must ruminate before saying the next sentence, is a Fassbinder stylization that can certainly grow weary over a few hours.
First screened in two parts on German TV (Part One is 105 minutes while Part Two runs 107 minutes), the theatrical experience puts both together for a runtime of three hours and 32 minutes, and the action develops slow, as strange, incongruous mysteries continue to pile up in the narrative. A man vanishes from one moment to the next, practically in front of the eyes of our hero, setting him off on an odd wild goose chase to get to the bottom of the disappearance. By the same token, falling equipment can crush a woman as our hero speaks with her, but he can still carry on with his stroll with nary a change on his face. Throughout the movie people walk through scenes with mostly blank looks. Women especially act like vapid mannequins. It’s as if Fassbinder made the movie not just for another time but another dimension of humanity.
The protagonist is a buff computer engineer in his mid-thirties. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) comes to head the Simulacron project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology after his predecessor, Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) dies following what seems a nervous breakdown. The Simulacron, a giant computer (this was made in the seventies when data was stored on tape, after all), simulates the real world by populating an artificial world within it with “identity units.” These artificial people are given all the characteristics of humanity excepting the notion of the Simulacron, so the world “above” exists as an observing and unknowable God to the identity units “below.”
Corporations want in on the government project to simulate and therefore foretell future scenarios and bank on them. Stiller resists, however, showing concern for strange goings on like that sudden disappearance of his associate, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny). He soon begins to wonder, is he in control of a simulated world or part of one? At the core of this question, is whether reality, or existence for that matter, is re-defined when humanity becomes reliant on computers to make decisions. Are we in fact giving up free will by investing in a computer-centric world? It’s an appropriate question in this contemporary time.
The result is at times prophetic, though often meandering and a bit indulgent. This is indeed Fassbinder in his element, and those who miss him will celebrate the restoration of this film. Those unfamiliar his style should be prepared to know a little something about his unique filmic flourishes, and how this film might fit in with the renaissance of the science-fiction film genre, a genre otherwise unexplored by Fassbinder.
Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi movies had just become something more than cheap, escapist camp during this period of movie history. 2001, which followed a script written with sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, truly opened the genre to philosophical questions. In 1972, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky offered Solaris, adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, as his response to Kubrick’s movie. Though 2001 and Solaris are held up as some of the greatest works of serious science-fiction cinema, World on a Wire became forgotten. There are probably many reasons for this. Fassbinder was much more prolific than either Kubrick or Tarkovsky, which meant World on a Wire was sort of lost in the shuffle of his output. Fassbinder would also not become appreciated as a serious filmmaker until practically after his death.
It is a shame that World on a Wire, based in Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 American novel Simulacron-3, languished for as long as it did, as Fassbinder dives into the implications of alternate realities with aplomb. He certainly tries to raise the film to the higher level of sci-fi of 2001 and Solaris, even if the results do come across as a bit uneven. One factor maybe that Löwitsch had been drunk throughout the filming. “[He was] never not drunk,” according to Ulli Lommel, who played both the journalist Rupp in the movie and worked on the film’s art direction while also taking the assignment as Löwitsch’s “chaperone” (ibid).
Knowing Fassbinder, his acceptance of such behavior from his lead, a regular of his films, should come as no surprise. If punk rock has an equivalent in cinema, it might have been Fassbinder. He embodies the spirit of the German New Wave of the sixties and seventies, which famously included Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, as he jumped into film making despite his rejection from the Berlin Film School. He seemed to make films as a primal desire he could not keep at bay. His movies were raw works driven by an unstoppable desire to create, hence resulting in such messy, passionate works such as World on a Wire, which can still show a very literate knowledge of mise-en-scène and cinematic technique. With World on a Wire, Fassbinder even seems to give a nod to Kubrick with the presence of classical music during some scenes and the sometimes indulgent use of a tracking camera.
As it was rarely screened until now, most Fassbinder fans will only know World on a Wire as a sort of lost gem from the prolific director who only stopped making movies after he died at the age of 36 mixing illicit drugs and sleeping pills. He still managed to direct more than 40 films over the course of 16 years of film directing, some with epic run times.
Despite an enfant terrible reputation, Fassbinder also had a highly attuned insight into humanity, particularly of his peers of post-war Germany. He was not afraid of criticizing his countrymen, and did it ever piss them off. However, as he is dealing with an alternate reality in World on a Wire, the people populating the film maintain an enigmatic quality. A true sense of humanity does not come until the movie’s very last scene. This is not the incite-worthy Berlin Alexanderplatz (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), released in early 1980. Germans protested in the streets during the broadcast of his famous 15-hour television series, which he adapted from Alfred Döblin’s German novel that captured Germany between two World Wars. A thoughtful tribute to the mini-series, which had a theatrical release in the US in 1983, by contemporary German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) can be found here. Tykwer notes the protests alleged a dissatisfaction in the quality of sound and images, but below it all was a painful exorcism of the dark German spirit.
In comparison, World on a Wire seems like a tamer work in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. It offers some quirky, if uneven qualities. As already noted, the acting varies, and many characters, especially the women, seem to populate the film as if in a trance. There’s on off-putting inconsistent use of zoom outs and zoom ins. It features a strange soundtrack recalling 1956’s Forbidden Planet, of occasional and oddly timed electro/synth stings and noise, punctuating certain actions. At times, these cues appear at arbitrary moments, adding to the movie’s off-putting surreal quality. It’s as if this movie indeed came from not only another time and place but an alternate universe.
As opposed to Berlin Alexanderplatz, World on a Wire must have baffled viewers upon its first broadcast on West German television more than angered them, leading me again to think of another reason this movie sort of languished at the back of Fassbinder’s filmography. It was just too ahead of its time. But nowadays with virtual reality, the Internet and role-playing games like the Sims, World on a Wire could very well be easier to comprehend. A millennial view would probably take for granted some of the film’s then idiosyncratic notions. For instance, living a simulated life inside a computer. In fact, the incongruously dressed people at a party around an indoor pool, some just standing, most barely moving, could be seen as a field of Avatars awaiting commands from their users. Quirks like that give the film a special, almost surreal atmosphere coupled with a prophetic air. Though Fassbinder did not invent the Sims, he indeed seems fascinated about the multi-dimensional aspects of such a world. Users of the Simulacron can peer into it with black and white monitors set up around the computer, though to interface with it, they must don helmets, the design and idea of which seem to foretell the virtual reality trend of the nineties.At the start of the film, we are introduced to this alternate future during a meeting of officials with vested interests in the Simulacron. Vollmer soon confronts secretary of state Von Wielaub (Heinz Meier) with a handheld mirror and tells him: “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Von Wielaub huffs and puffs angrily at the seeming affront, but it is a truth not only functional in alternate reality but life in general, a testament to the philosophical aspects of this movie.
Throughout World on a Wire, mirrors and reflections on glass offer continual signposts for meditating on Vollmer’s revelation. But the truth of what is actually going on in the movie does not reveal itself to Stiller until the very end of the film’s first part, though, as already noted, Fassbinder drops incongruous little clues throughout that are sometimes unsettling and other times more subtle. I would rather not spoil what Stiller learns at the end of this first half of the film, as some might figure it out on their own, very early on, and if you can glean a guess from earlier scenes where this is going, the film might already begin to feel a bit tedious.
But something that does make the unfolding action more interesting throughout is realizing that the World on a Wire at stake is a fear of losing the self, an idea that certainly also looms large today in a different sense from what it meant in the cold-war era that produced this movie, just over the Berlin Wall. The central mystery at the film unfolds at the pool party just after Lause tells Stiller, “Do you know what fear is?” A glass falls, Stiller turns away, distracted. He then looks back to find Lause has vanished. Stiller then becomes obsessed with Lause’s sudden disappearance, and no one seems to know who Lause is, despite his seeming closeness to Simulacron from the outset. Could Stiller’s sense of reality be falling apart? Appropriately enough, the institute where he works, has a psychologist on hand to take care of any doubts in the minds of their people. Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck) tells Stiller he understands why his nerves might be frayed and reminds him of a key part of his job on the Simulacron project: “You can add or delete people at will. This leads to feelings of guilt, depression and fear.” This is testament to today’s world of alternate realities that people constantly participate in with such nonchalance. What are we doing to our sense of self on such interactive platforms such as Facebook? It is only after Stiller seems to make the ultimate sacrifice at the film’s very end that he makes the joyful, simple declaration: “I am. I am.”(Read about the poster artist’s process: here)
Janus Films has undertaken the film’s distribution, so expect a Criterion Collection release, according to a close source at the studio. As can be expected by such participants like Janus and Criterion, known for some of the best film and DVD restorations in the medium’s history, the picture quality of World on a Wire is amazing. The well-timed cinematic release has already played a handful of cities, and MBC will screen it in HD. Framed in 4:3 ratio for television and shot on 16mm reversal film, which does not exactly offer the finest grain image, New York’s Museum of Modern Art worked with Juliane Lorenz, the director of the RWF Foundation, and Michael Ballhaus, the movie’s cameraman, to produce a new 35mm print, which is also now making the rounds to a select few cinemas (three-and-half-hours of 35mm makes for a lot of 45-pound canisters). It had its debut more than a year ago at MoMA.
Where I live, World on a Wire will hit the big screen thanks to an exclusive engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, from Friday to Tuesday, July 29 – Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. each night (the theater’s director, Dana Keith, assured me to expect an intermission between the film’s two parts, for those that might need a break). Other screening dates across the US, including some in 35mm can be found here, and do not be afraid to write the distributor a line to ask about a nearby screening in your town (see their email address at the bottom part of the film’s official homepage).
*Allow me one note on the title theme, the gorgeous, listless instrumental, “Albatross” by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, which makes a great musical accompaniment to this equally indulgent review:
Though the film is filled with an odd array of burbles, squawks, hums and shrieks of period synth noise by Gottfried Hüngsberg as well as diagetic classical music, this choice of music for the title sequence, which does not appear until the end credits of Part 1 of World on a Wire reminds me of the music Neu! would make if they were more chill. With its softly strummed guitar and the whine of a slide guitar, the piece sounds like Krautrock on Hawaiian holiday.