Monday, January 5, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973
Starring: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau

Professor Vollmer, the director of a virtual reality program at the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science, has created a computer with a simulation program containing thousands of “identity units,” beings who think their world is real. Vollmer has a mental breakdown and mysteriously dies. When his successor, Dr. Stiller, questions the security chief of the Institute, the man disappears without a trace and no one claims to have any memory of his existence. Some of the identity units also begin to act strangely — one tries to commit suicide — and Stiller enters the simulation world to investigate. One of the identity units suggests to him that Stiller’s reality is just another level in the world simulation and that Stiller must escape and try to find the real world above.

Released in two parts on German television in 1973, this little-seen film is the sole example of science fiction within Fassbinder’s prolific, varied catalog. Not quite a mini-series, but longer than an average feature-length film with part one at 100 minutes and part two at 105 minutes, this is one of Fassbinder’s most inspired works and oddly anticipates much of what was to come in science fiction cinema. An adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s novel, Simulacron-3 (1964), Galouye’s book was one of the first looks at virtual reality alongside Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint. World on a Wire belongs alongside early French science fiction efforts like Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and prefigures everything from Blade Runner (1982) and Videodrome (1983) to The Matrix (1999).

This film wasn’t really rediscovered until 2010, when it was digitally restored by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and soon after released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. 1973 was an important turning point for Fassbinder. Including World on a Wire, he also directed Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his first major international breakthrough. Though it is radically different from his other works on the surface level, World on a Wire is another examination of some of Fassbinder’s fundamental themes: illusion, lies and manipulations, the nature of love and identity, and the effect of doubles and reflections. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an emotionally fraught, melodramatic look at those topics, while World on a Wire is a colder and more detached venture. It’s a blend of film noir, science fiction, and corporate espionage thriller that philosophically examines the nature of reality and identity.

This look at reality, alternate worlds, and artificial intelligence is also fittingly Kafka-esque and contains many elements of horror, claustrophobia, and paranoia. Stiller thinks he is insane and is encouraged to believe this; he is later accused of having lost his mind, and must go on the run or face imprisonment or life in an insane asylum; finally, he is framed for murder and someone attempts to assassinate him. Though this film starts off relatively slowly, by the second half Stiller is constantly on the run with new, increasingly dangerous obstacles thrown in his path. These are designed to punish him, but also to prevent him from reaching the truth. On the surface, this is a less emotionally fraught film than Fassbinder’s other works, but still effectively examines isolation, manipulation, and alienation.

The handsome Klaus Löwitsch, one of Fassbinder’s regular collaborators, starred as Fred Stiller. His portrayal of a fundamentally rational and level-headed, yet inquisitive man is more stable and less emotional than some of Fassbinder’s other main characters, but he is compelling and convincing. If he is the brains of the operation, than television actress Mascha Rabben as Eva Vollmer is certainly the heart. She is not given much running time, but is as memorable as any of Fassbinder’s major heroines and provides the film with some necessary emotional resonance. Many of Fassbinder’s other regular actors -- Adrian Hoven, Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab, Karl Scheydt, Ulli Lommel, and Ingrid Caven – round out a solid cast. Kurt Raab also took charge of the film’s breathtaking art direction. Though mirrors, glass, and other reflective surfaces are a constant in the films of Fassbinder’s mid to late career, they are never as ever-present as in World on a Wire, where Schiller and his companions are reflected and refracted in nearly every seen.

Available on a 
two-disc DVD from Criterion
, World on a Wire comes with the highest recommend for both Fassbinder fans and science fiction-lovers. It’s one of his most underrated works and is a fascinating look at the origins of cinematic science fiction. Fassbinder does not really get distracted by the trappings of the genre, and provides a lean, intriguing, and deeply philosophical look at the nature of reality and the complex construction of human identity. It is not to be missed.

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