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Man in the Mirror: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, Film Review

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, Film Review

Revisiting Fassbinder’s Long Forgotten Take on Virtual Reality

Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) - Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s engagement (I almost said “flirtation”) with science fiction doesn’t begin or end with Welt am Draht (1973), but World on a Wire—which will be arriving from Criterion in February—is his most straightforward take on the genre.

Based on Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3, World on a Wire explored the philosophical implications of virtual reality long before the Wachowskis’ Gnostic fantasy The Matrix (1999) made the idea a generational password. Both the novel and the film take up themes familiar to readers of New Wave science fiction: consciousness, the limits of perception, the vagaries of identity, the dehumanization of urban existence, the powers of global capital, and, of course, the computer generation of reality, the groundless ground whose discovery is simultaneously the narrative’s origin and undoing.

Just the look of the film is worth savoring. Originally shot on 16mm for German television, aided by Michael Ballhaus’s geometrical compositions, Fassbinder presents an astonishing series of “futuristic” interiors, cunningly conjured for the small screen. Just as Tarkovsky went to Tokyo to find a city of the future for Solaris (1972), Fassbinder went to Paris, locating the bistros, ultramodern bars and office buildings that would serve as a backdrop. As befits a film about infinite recursion (Is the world we’re experiencing a simulation of another one? And inside that are there others hidden more effectively?), there are mirrors in nearly every room; often the action takes place within them.

Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) - Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973The story is almost familiar: Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is in charge of a giant computer simulation in which a self-sufficient world has been built and populated. The people inside the program have no idea their world is fictional or that their lives serve as a State experiment in the calculation of future social needs (the simulated world is, in another ironic moment of recursion, represented as images on television). But there is trouble afoot. Commercial concerns are vying for access to the simulator’s information; one of the scientists has died under mysterious circumstances. When a member of his team literally disappears from a party, Stiller wanders into a labyrinth of continually shifting realities.

The connections—and disconnections—of World on a Wire to Fassbinder’s other films are useful to consider. Not only does it present another in a series of meditations on the individual’s confrontation with (literally) restrictive social codes, it emphasizes their contingent, fictional nature in a way the more realist films cannot. Fassbinder’s characters have often searched for an outside, or for a world whose environment isn’t entirely hostile to their continued self-production (as the problem is put by the title of an episode of Alexanderplatz: “How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?”). In World on a Wire, that dilemma is at once more real and more unsolvable.

Viewers familiar with Fassbinder will find most of his company among the cast. Highlights: Günter Lamprecht, nearly ten years before Berlin Alexanderplatz; the almost-extinguished Margit Carstensen as Stiller’s former secretary; a bald Kurt Raab; El Hedi ben Salem as an omnipresent, silent security guard; and the cameo appearance of Eddie Constantine to remind us that Alphaville (1965) isn’t far off.

David Chirico is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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