**** World On A Wire (1973)
German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 3 ½ hour 1973 made-for-television noir/sci-fi World On A Wire (Welt Am Draht) sat gathering dust for nearly 40 years until the Fassbinder Foundation re-released it to a short theatrical run at a few festivals and select art house theatres in late 2010. Criterion’s North American release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray a couple of weeks ago therefore marks the first time most cinephiles have been able to see World On A Wire and it makes you wonder just how many other major works exist out there, awaiting rediscovery.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a glacially-paced 205 minute German-language sci-fi might not be to all tastes, but World on a Wire is a deeply rewarding and worthy investment for the more adventurous viewer. It is quite possibly the first film to deal with virtual reality, a decade before Tron’s simplistic computer game world and three decades before The Matrix. The film is a wonderful amalgam of bizarrely-futuristic ’70s sets and paranoid ’50s existentialism. It begins as a corporate conspiracy thriller by way of a psychodrama – computer engineer Fred Stiller (the terrific Klaus Löwitsch) takes over his company’s most delicate and important project—a virtual world created entirely within a computer—when his boss dies in what appears to be a freak accident and the head of security disappears. In fact, the head of security disappears so completely that no one remembers he ever existed, and the more Fred digs into the phenomenon, the more “glitches” he finds in his reality.
It won’t take long for those with a developed sense of cinematic convention to flush out the “mystery” at the core of World on a Wire – the title alone should give you a clue as to the basic conceit that Fassbinder uses to explore the concept of virtual worlds. The reveal at the end of part 1 is supplied with little expectation that most viewers don’t already know what’s going on. The magic of World on a Wire then is in the details.
Interestingly, Fassbinder manages to convey the virtual world without the use of CGI or flashy effects. He instead uses mirrors and fragmented imagery to represent the constant disembodiment of the human image. Scenes are choreographed with excessive discipline, characters stay frozen in place until other characters change position or are disrupted by noise, simulating the robotic world that has begun to undermine human discourse. The film’s transgressions are subtle and obvious: the humans of the real world and the humans of the computer age aren’t discerningly distinct from each other and yet there’s something fundamental missing.
Fassbinder anticipates the future well and while the filmmaker seems aware that the film regularly slips into moments of self-parody, he’s entirely serious about its visions and heart. In more than a few ways, World On A Wire is a slyly-comedic meditation on madness. The film doesn’t comment in an especially substantive way on computers and our electronic future, but the fact that humankind (at least the flesh and bone kind as we know it) might be heading toward extinction is its singular warning.
Loosely based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye written in the mid-’60s, Fassbinder expands the story into Philip K. Dick territory by adding the paranoid anxieties and questions of identity, reality, and perception Dick explored in his books. That he did this a decade before the cyberpunk era of alternate realities found expression in films like Blade Runner and Videodrome is testament to Fassbinder’s brilliance. It would take another 10 years for other filmmakers to catch up and 30 more for the rest of us to realize it.