In 1973, German television aired a two part miniseries by a young director named Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Still only 28 years old, Fassbinder had seven feature films under his belt and had already made a name for himself as a controversial artist with a unique style and a tireless work ethic. Although he was not initially embraced by critics in his native Germany, Fassbinder was recognized abroad on the film circuit, and in the following year, his film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, would elevate the director to widespread international recognition.
The movie, World on a Wire, then, comes at an intriguing moment in Fassbinder’s career. He had made three films beginning in 1972 which actively explored the genre of melodrama as a way of embedding his scathing social critiques in the language of romance and popular cinema. World on a Wire was Fassbinder’s first television project, though, like many of the directors associated with the New German Cinema, it would not be his last. His most well-known foray into the medium was Berlin Alexandraplatz, a 1980 epic considered Fassbinder’s masterpiece.
World on a Wire is not as well known as Berlin Alexandraplatz to a large extent because it has not been widely available for nearly 40 years. In 2010, the movie was re-mastered and restored, reintroduced at the Berlin International Film Festival. It has received limited screenings since on the film festival circuit and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This weekend it will enjoy an exclusive engagement at the Texas Theater.
World on a Wire is an adaptation of a 1964 science fiction novel by Daniel Galouye entitled Simulacron-3. A remarkably sophisticated imagining of the potential impact of computer-created virtual reality, the story involves a corporation which has developed a supercomputer that simulates an alternate world. Programming personalities into the system, individuals can place a helmet over their heads and transport their consciousness into the virtual world.
If you are familiar with Fassbinder’s work — his penchant for blazing social critiques; deep suspicions of power, institutions, and capitalist forces; and his philosophic sensitivity towards the elusive nature of the soul – you might anticipate where this is going. In Fassbinder’s hands, Galouye’s story becomes a bulldozer of a parable about technology and power, love and existential reality.
At the center of the story is Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a scientist and co-developer of the Simulacron system who is promoted to technical director of the company after his predecessor, Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) goes mad in the opening scenes of the movie, killing himself. Before his death, however, Vollmer tells the company’s chief of security, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny), that he has discovered something through the computer program that if he told it to anyone it would “destroy the whole world.”
Lause meets Stiller at a party that night at the home of the company executive, the megalomaniacal Herbert Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau), and tells him about this mystery. Only immediately after Lause tells Stiller about Vollmer’s secret, he, literally, disappears. This sends Stiller into a panic, as he tries to track down the circumstances surrounding Vollmer’s death, the nature of the secret, and just what happened to Guenther Lause. However, as in Kafka’s The Castle, the harder Stiller struggles to dig the truth out from the bureaucratic manipulations of his company and wider society, the more elusive and impossible it all becomes. The use of music by Austrian musician Anton Karas also slyly references Carol Reed’s classic, The Third Man.
Soon the forces of power are conspiring against Stiller. The police suspect him of murder. Siskins tries to oust him from the company so that he can kow-tow to a powerful steel conglomerate that wants to use the computer to bolster their profits. And Stiller falls in love with Eva Vollmer, Henry’s daughter, who herself proves to be a character shrouded in mystery and intrigue.
What is most immediately striking about Fassbinder’s movie is its exquisite set design. A futuristic sci-fi set in a contemporary landscape, like Goddard’s Alphaville, Fassbinder uses the design and architecture of the 1960s and 1970s to create, not so much a vision of the future, but a way of looking at the present that reveals our aspirations for the future. Homes and offices are encased and partitioned with glass. Tables, lamps, knickknacks and furniture are universally geometric and severely angular, with the exception of bulbous chairs and swanky, 60s-chic oval bar stools. World on a Wire is, in part, a film about the potential disconnect between human consciousness and the physical world, and the mood is driven home Fassbinder’s impersonal, displaced staging. In one of my favorite scenes, Stiller meets Siskins in his sprawling, glass-lined office. During their very serious conversation, the two men begin spinning in their chairs like children let loose in their father’s office. The direction is both inexplicable and ingenious, Fassbinder demonstrating how a self-conscious suspension of the rules of behavioral reality can reveal a social awkwardness that is, nonetheless, palpable and real.
At a 205 minutes, World on a Wire is chock full of these little Fassbinder-isms, which lend the film a particular sense of uncomfortable tension and knavish absurdity. But while the more sensational aspects of Fassbinder’s style often receive the most attention (just as the more sensational aspects of his life made regular appearances in German newspapers), as a work for television, World on a Wire reminds us what an intoxicating and dramatically sophisticated artist the director was. The movie’s story is enveloping and addicting, you can hardly turn away, and each scene contains its own fascination.
World on a Wire will satisfy sci-fi fans who love sophisticated technological allegories, but the movie is so much more than that. It is very much a love story, and a deeply reflective philosophic exploration. Fassbinder displays a singular talent, style, and finesse for filmmaking that is not only exceptionally rare, it leaves you wondering if such a talent will ever emerge again.
As Stiller is drawn more deeply, the lines blur between the created computer world and his own reality, and World on a Wire begins to poke holes in our own conventional assumptions about what is real. In this way, Fassbinder’s mission is both metaphysical and political. World on a Wire is an attack on complacency and assumption. It is a challenge to the habits of existence that constrain our inquiry into the true nature of things. It is about how technology, social organizations, institutions, and corporations co-opt our naïveté in their exertion of power and greed. World on a Wire is bold, brash, occasionally infuriating, often charming, and bravely dense. And nearly forty years after its release, Fassbinder’s concerns and critiques don’t feel the slightest bit dated. In fact, they may be more relevant now than they ever were.
The Texas Theatre will show part one of the movie Friday, July 22, and part two on Saturday, July 23. The movie will then be showed in full on Sunday, July 24.