DIRECTED BY: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
FEATURING: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, Barbara Valentin, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau
PLOT: A computer programmer assigned to run a virtual reality world after his superior goes insane finds himself paranoid about the motives of his government bosses, and wonders if someone else might ultimately be behind the project.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: World on a Wire is hard science fiction, but with a seriously disorienting edge. On the surface it’s ultra-rational, but it peers into a disintegrating world existing underneath ours, undermining our sense of reality.
COMMENTS: The plot twist of World on a Wire won’t shock modern audiences, but that hardly matters. The movie’s sanity-questioning themes may have been shopworn even in 1973, but rarely have they been delivered with such depth and artistry. Besides, the “big revelation” happens at the end of Part I, the midpoint of this three and a half hour epic, leaving us with another entire movie to develop the consequences. Wire‘s double length provides ample time to explore and flesh out an expansive cast of characters, including two separate love interests for our paranoid protagonist: Eva, the daughter of his deceased superior, and Gloria, his statuesque, almost impossibly blond and voluptuous secretary. The plot sets up computer scientist Fred Stiller as a Socrates figure, running about the virtual agora questioning the nature of reality, raising uncomfortable doubts that are no more welcome in the world of World on a Wire than they were in ancient Athens. The powers that be would like to assure that Stiller meets the same fate as the Greek gadfly, but the scientist isn’t willing to go quietly. The film is visually advanced for television, with arty angles and elaborate 360 degree tracking shots. The wide lapels on plaid sports jackets belie the film’s 1970s origins, but the sets have a gleaming metallic modernism that makes them timeless. Mirrors and distorting lenses are everywhere to reinforce the sense of doubling and reflected realities. Sonically, the movie challenges the audience with abrasive, distressing music queues suggesting a rupturing synthetic reality: sometimes, it sounds like Fassbinder’s recorded a classical orchestra soldiering on while being attacked by an ever-growing swarm of electronic bees, and at other times like he’s scraping a theremin across a chalkboard. Although the visual and audio techniques here express the ontological ambiguity of Stiller’s predicament, a number of subtle and not-so-subtle surreal touches bring across the point as effectively. Most of the performances have a detached and stilted quality, with minor characters found staring out into space blankly when not engaged in direct dialogue. The entertainment venues in this world are genuinely peculiar, including a party at an indoor pool with aquatic male gymnasts, a bar where topless Africans dance to fado ballads, and a shadow-theater cabaret with waiters in whiteface and shirtless chefs. Of course, none of those sequences are as odd as the moment when Stiller asks a woman on the street for a light, and a load of bricks suddenly falls from the sky and buries her. That early sequence, a weirdly blasé tragedy, rates as World‘s strangest scene, but at the time Stiller is too immersed in his own reality to recognize how bizarre it is. He still has another two hours of movie to develop his slow-dawning epiphany about just how weird the world around him has become. It takes time to fully explore this World on a Wire, but the trip down this rabbit hole is well worth it.
World on a Wire was based on Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel “Simulacron-3,” which was also adapted by Hollywood in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor. Wire was only broadcast on German television twice and never released theatrically during Fassbinder’s lifetime. The Fassbinder Foundation saved the movie from its undeserved obscurity, restoring the lost classic and releasing it to film festivals in 2010. The Criterion Collection followed with a DVD/Blu-ray release in 2012.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The full feature runs close the three and a half hours and is fraught with bizarre formal elements. What separates it from the aforementioned high-concept movies is the utter weirdness that is imbued throughout.”–Zachary Goldbaum, “Brightest Young Things” (theatrical re-release)