World on a Wire (Welt am Draht)

World on a Wire
(Welt am Draht)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Fritz Müller-Scherz & Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye)
Stars: Klaus Löwitsch (Fred Stiller), Barbara Valentin (Gloria Fromm), Mascha Rabben (Eva Vollmer), Karl-Heinz Vosgerau (Herbert Siskins), Wolfgang Schenck (Franz Hahn), Günter Lamprecht (Fritz Walfang), Ulli Lommel (Rupp, Journalist), Adrian Hoven (Professor Henry Vollmer), Ivan Desny (Günther Lause), Joachim Hansen (Hans Edelkern), Kurt Raab (Mark Holm), Margit Carstensen (Maya Schmidt-Gentner), Ingrid Caven (Uschi, secretary), Gottfried John (Einstein), Rudolf Lenz (Hartmann)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1973
Country: West Germany
World on a Wire Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
World on a WireOriginally released as a two-part mini-series for German television, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire is an odd entry in the eclectic New German auteur’s prodigious career that had been little seen prior to its restoration and theatrical screenings last year. Fassbinder was an exceptionally prolific filmmaker (he directed 40 films in a 14-year career that was cut short by his death in 1982 at the age of 37), and he made World on a Wire during a particularly prolific period that saw the production and release of nine films in the three-year period between 1972 and 1974, including the five-part mini-series Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972) and his Sirkian romantic masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974).

Fassbinder’s only work of science fiction, World on a Wire is a film of ideas and questions whose prescient take on virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the moral responsibility humans have toward machines made in their likeness presages such millennial films as Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999) and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The questions swirling throughout Fassbinder’s film were not new to science fiction as a genre, although they had been relegated primarily to the printed page in books and stories by William Gibson and Philip K. Dick (World on a Wire is based on the 1964 novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, which was adapted again in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor). Cinematic science fiction in the early 1970s, meanwhile, was largely obsessed with ideas of the apocalypse and dystopia, as evidence by Planet of the Apes (1968), No Blade of Grass (1970), THX 1138 (1971), and Soylent Green (1973).

While technology is crucial in some way to all of those films, it is uniquely central to World on a Wire’s view of the near-distant future. Scientists at IKZ (Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology) have built computer-simulated reality populated by 8,000 “identity units,” which are essentially computer programs constructed of digital information that are unaware of the true nature of their existence. Within IKZ’s virtual reality, these units think that they are human and, for all intents and purposes, behave as if they were. Thus, at the film’s core is the fundamental question: Are they human? If the identity units are capable of human thought and behavior, does that mean they are endowed with inalienable rights? And, perhaps even more perplexing, if these computer simulations believe that they are human, what is to say that the same is not true of our world? If we only know what we take in through our sense, does that prove the existence of anything other than our senses themselves?

These heady philosophical issues are not immediately apparent in World on a Wire, as Fassbinder and his co-screenwriter Fritz Müller-Scherz maintain Galouye’s mystery-thriller plot structure. We are first introduced to Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), the chief developer of IKZ’s virtual reality computer program, who is clearly behaving strangely and is told something devastating by Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the company’s chief of security, before turning up dead minutes later. Vollmer’s successor is Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a kind of noir-ish everyman who is drawn into the mystery when he meets Lause at a party only to have the man vanish into thin air while everyone denies his existence (a scenario reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes). Stiller wants to solve the mystery of both Lause’s disappearance and Vollmer’s strange death, if only to prove his own sanity, and he is aided in his efforts by Vollmer’s daughter, Eva (Mascha Rabben). However, at the same time he is under pressure from Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau), IKZ’s chief executive, to continue developing the virtual reality program and readying it for use by corporations to help determine market trends over the next several decades. Thus, in addition to the underlying issues involving identity and reality, World on a Wire also delves into questions about the wholesale appropriation of technology by capitalism.

That is a lot for any one film to do, even one that runs almost three and a half hours, and World on a Wire is somewhat uneven as a result. Fassbinder keeps the story moving along at a healthy clip, and the mystery-thriller structure is effective in interweaving narrative pleasure with headier philosophical and moral concerns. Although an unusual film for Fassbinder, World on a Wire looks very much like one of his productions, particularly given the meticulous nature of its staging and tracking shots (which are all the more impressive given how quickly he worked) and the density of the mise-en-scène, which here is utterly dominated by reflective surfaces. Entire scenes are engulfed in mirrors, semi-translucent vases, and shiny metallic surfaces, all of which conspire to both convey a world of the near future and suggest visually the various forms of duality that inform the characters and the story. The film was shot entirely in Paris, and Fassbinder and his production design team are clever in their use of the modernist architecture and interior design that had begun to dominate the city’s outskirts in the 1960s (although some scenes, such as an early party around a swimming pool, are a bit too campy for the film’s overall tone). Despite a limited budget that didn’t allow for special effects, Fassbinder effectively conveys a future that is that much closer to the world of today, ensuring that World on a Wire will continue to resonate for a long time.

World on a Wire Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
World on a Wire is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioGerman Linear PCM 1.0 moanural
  • Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire”: Looking Ahead to Today documentary
  • Video interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gemünden
  • Trailer for the 2010 theatrical release
  • Essay by film critic Ed Halter
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 21, 2012

    I have read World on a Wire described as a “lost film,” although that seems a bit of an overstatement given that everyone knew where it was—it was just that nothing was being done with it. Thankfully, the Fassbinder Foundation undertook a restoration of the film that led to its theatrical re-release around the world in 2010. Criterion’s disc features the Foundation’s 2K high-definition transfer made from the original 16mm A/B reversal roles under the supervision of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Compared to new releases, Word on a Wire is going to look rough, as the 16mm celluloid is notably dense and grainy, although the image still boasts impressive detail throughout, which makes the film’s funky modernist vision of the future really pop. Colors look strong and natural throughout, with no hints of fading, and digital restoration has removed most signs of age and wear. Darker areas of the frame tend to be a bit noisy, but that is not surprising given the source material. The monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original 16mm magnetic perforated reels and digitally restored by both the Fassbinder Foundation and Criterion. Even with the multiple levels of restoration, there are still some aural artifacts here and there, and a few scenes feature some noticeable ambient hiss (particularly the scene where Stiller meets with Einstein).
    The supplements on the Blu-Ray include Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire”: Looking Ahead to Today, a 50-minute documentary about the film’s production that includes interviews with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who we see viewing the film during its restoration for the first time since it was on television), co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz, and actor Karl-Heinz Vosgerau; a new half-hour video interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gemünden that provides a good deal of aesthetic and cultural context for the film; and the trailer for the 2010 theatrical release.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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