May 24, 2010

World on a Wire (1973)

West Germany

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

205 min

Fassbinder is most widely known as the prolific director of Sirkian melodramas that exposed the moral hypocrisy at the core of West German society in the post-war years, whether it’s the critique of Adenauer’s ‘economic miracle’ in ‘The Marriage of Maria von Braun’ (1979) or racial and generation divisions in ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ (1974). Fassbinder held an uncomfortable mirror to a country that had at least on the surface or in its own collective consciousness, had laid the ghosts of Nazi Germany to rest. Fassbinder reminded it however, that this ‘success’ was illusory and where it had been achieved, it had come at a price.

If Fassbinder’s reputation rests on these films, then this means that several others he directed that didn’t overtly address social, economic and political issues, could easily be unfairly overlooked. ‘World on a Wire’ is such a film. Certainly in the Fassbinder canon, it stands out as an oddity. Made for German television during one of his most personally creative periods (‘Fear Eats the Soul’ and ‘Effi Briest’ almost immediately followed), it’s an adaptation of the science fiction novel ‘Simulacron-3’ by the American writer Daniel F. Galouye. Although Fassbinder personally adapted the novel, one wonders whether it was his original idea to make this film. Given what we know of his prior and subsequent career, science fiction appears a strange direction, though Fassbinder might have seen it as an opportunity to wrongfoot his audience and critics and to demonstrate his versatility.

In a convoluted narrative that really needs to be followed closely in order to appreciate precisely what’s going on, the IKZ cybernetics institute has developed a simulation programme that features thousands of ‘identity units’ living as human beings, thinking they’re human beings, acquiring memory and consciences. Corporate paranoia and intrigue manifests itself in betrayal and murder, though we’re constantly asked to consider what we see; whether this is the real or simulated world, or whether indeed, there’s more than one level of simulation. Although this scenario sounds familiar to modern audiences; there’s parallels with The Matrix series of films, and Galouye’s novel was filmed in 1999 as ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, Fassbinder has a different emphasis from the traditional set up of science fiction films. He eschews any interest in action sequences, which are kept to a minimum. Instead, ‘World on a Wire’ is more of an intellectual and philosophical film, discussing the theories of Plato and Zeno amongst others. Fassbinder often employs his camera urgently (courtesy of his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, now Martin Scorsese’s DoP of choice) and the set design keeps the film rooted in the contemporary (e.g. 1970s) style rather than suggesting a more optimistic aesthetic of the future. His usual acting stock participate. All these elements taken together suggest therefore that Fassbinder had more of a personal investment in this film that one might initially imagine. It features numerous hallmarks of the classic Fassbinder film and style.

‘World on a Wire’ had been unavailable almost since its original transmission. It had never been broadcast in cinemas and had only been shown on German television on a few occasions. Thanks to Second Sight, an important moment in Fassbinder’s film making career has been restored and is now ripe for rediscovery.

‘World on a Wire’ is released by Second Sight films on 17 May 2010


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