Jun 17, 2013

World on a Wire

I would not describe myself as anything even remotely along the lines of a science fiction fan or a connoisseur, but I am an unwavering Rainer Werner Fassbinder fiend of sorts, so naturally I am quite keen on his sole yet immense contribution to the sci-fi genre, Welt am Draht (1973) aka World on a Wire, a 212 minute proto-cyberpunk epic shot on 16mm film that was originally released as a two-part miniseries for West German television. Nearly impossible to find until rather recently after a completely restored version appeared at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in 2010 and was eventually released on DVD/Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in February 2012, World on a Wire is a Teutonized, semi-futuristic celluloid adaptation of Simulacron-3 (1964) aka Counterfeit World by American science fiction novelist Daniel F. Galouye. Featuring next to nil action nor special effects yet a variety of aesthetically exquisite and quasi-futuristic and sometimes classical sets, World on a Wire is a rare cultivated thinking man’s sci-fi flick for the non-autistic that is certainly a wonderful oddity among Fassbinder’s work in that it is his sole experiment in science fiction, although the director would later play the lead role in his friend Wolf Gremm's darkly comedic and curiously campy science fiction work Kamikaze 1989 (1982) aka Kamikaze 89. Of course, being a fairly early work by Fassbinder, who was especially influenced by American gangster flicks and films of the French New Wave during his formative years as a filmmaker, World on a Wire is more a neo-noir epic set in an aesthetically pleasing technocratic nightmare than an emotionally vacant feeble fantasy-driven escapist piece for virginal fanboys. Featuring what seems to be the majority of Fassbinder’s superstars, including Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab, Ingrid Caven, and Ulli Lommel, among countless others, as well as a cameo from the filmmaker’s friend/fellow filmmaker Werner Schroeter (Eika Katappa, Der Bomberpilot) and his statuesque muse Magdalena Montezuma, World on a Wire is arguably the German New Cinema alpha-auteur’s first great and epic masterpiece, as a sort of ambitious warm-up for his celluloid magnum opus and Gesamtkunstwerk, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). A culturally pessimistic work about a charming kraut Humphrey Bogart/James Bond-like character who finds himself a rather lonely yet marked man and who begins to believe the world he lives in may be virtual reality as opposed to actual reality, World on a Wire—a work predating Blade Runner (1982) by nearly a decade and The Matrix (1999) by over a quarter of a century—brings up moral questions about artificial intelligence and what happens when man’s creations have more so-called ‘humanity’ than man himself, but also the age old questions regarding persona versus individual and how people perceive others, especially in a world that is increasingly technology-driven.  Additionally, World on a Wire also happens to be Fassbinder's least 'queer' and most innately masculine cinematic work, thus making it the perfect introduction to the enfant terrible auteur filmmaker's outstanding and highly idiosyncratic oeuvre.

 Things are getting rather morally dubious and just plain bizarre at the institute for cybernetics and future science (Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung aka “IKZ"), where a new supercomputer holds a simulation program called “Simulacron one” featuring a “virtual reality” of the real world, including 9,000 “identity units” (or electronic man-made individuals with the ability to think, feel, and have memories), some of which have made the mistake of wanting to become real living and breathing human beings. Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), who is apparently on the brink of a major world-changing discovery that “would mean the end of the world,” is the seemingly half-mad head of the Simulacron one program and after stating a number of degrading and quasi-insane things to the Secretary of State Von Weinlaub, including “you are nothing more than the image others have made of you,” dies under extremely questionable circumstances that appear to be totally nonsensical after randomly collapsing. With Vollmer dead, man’s man and lone-wolf Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) becomes his successor, but he seems reluctant to take the job, especially after Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the security adviser of IKZ, mysteriously disappears without a trace after passing on a secret regarding Vollmer’s apparent breakthrough. Even stranger, no one at IKZ seems to remember Mr. Lause, thus leading to the beginning of Stiller’s cognitive dissonance and war against virtual reality as the “man who knew too much.” In control of IKZ is a Svengali fellow named Herbert Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau), who is secretly working with in a partnership with the industrial conglomerate “United Steel.” When one of the contact units, a fellow named Einstein (played by Gottfried John), who happens to be the only one that knows about the simulation, manages to enter the body of IKZ scientist Fritz Walfang (Günter Lamprecht) and enters ‘reality,’ Stiller discovers that his world is nothing more than a simulation as well, thus ultimately leading to the good doctor’s figurative and literal break with reality, but his ‘delusions’ and fears are not unwarranted. In between banging a number of babes, including Vollmer’s daughter Eva (kraut diva Mascha Rabben) and Siskins’ blonde secretary Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin), Stiller runs away from the threat of being involuntarily institutionalized in a nut house, packs of police, assassination attempts, and phantom German Shepherds, among other things, after he is framed in a conspiracy created by Siskins and his corporate goons for the death of professor Vollmer and the IKZ’s psychiatrist Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck), a man that eventually realized the corruption at the cybernetics institute. Eventually, Stiller realizes he has a true friend and not just a femme fatale in the form of Eva Vollmer, who is a human contact unit to the real world. Stiller also learns that he was modeled after a real-life human named Dr. Fred Stiller who designed an electric model of himself just for kicks. Considering the real Fred Stiller developed a sort of ‘god complex’ and megalomania due to his control of the Simulacron virtual world, Eva’s love waned from him and she began to develop a deeper love for the sensually electronic Stiller, thus she decided to switch the bodies of both men. Despite its patently pessimistic tone, World on a Wire concludes on a rather positive note, especially for a Fassbinder flick, though it might strike fear into the typical Hollywood filmgoer due to its less than flattering depiction of the real world (as opposed to the Simulacron realm). 

 In 1973, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote regarding World on a Wire, “This, of course, creates doubts about ourselves merely being projections, since, in that world, projections and real persons look alike…what this is about is based on an old, philosophical model which here creates a certain kind of horror.” With internet social network sites like facebook changing the way people communicate and ultimately replacing real-life physical contact, Fassbinder’s sentiments seem all the more pertinent today in an era where a person’s internet persona typically transcends the true character of their true personality, at least in other people’s eyes, or to once again quote mad scientist Henry Vollmer, “you are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” For a master of oftentimes macabre and misanthropic melodrama, Fassbinder certainly made a great contribution to the realm of science fiction with World on a Wire, a cinematically epic work that manages to combine film noir, high-camp, softcore S&M imagery, a phantasmagorical Cocteau-esque use of mirrors, Sirkian set-design and melodrama, a fantastic and seemingly sardonic hodgepodge of old and new European actors (as well as counter-culture types like Rainer Langhans), music ranging from Richard Wagner’s ”Liebestod” to dreary counter-culture krautrock, absurdist imagery and comedy, and a soothing pseudo-futurist aesthetic for a film that is without contemporaries, although it does make for great double viewing with Stanley Kubrick’s equally antagonistically 'futuristic' sci-fi A Clockwork Orange (1971). Unfortunately, world-class cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and His Friends), who filmed World on a Wire, later bought the rights to Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) and planned to film another adaptation of the sci-fi novel, but he ultimately committed cinematic blasphemy by selling them to epic kraut hack Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), who produced the big science fiction turd The Thirteenth Floor (1999). For me, World on a Wire is just one (but a very big one at that!) of the many reasons why Rainer Werner Fassbinder is the filmmaker whose oeuvre I must often come back to. Rather unfortunately, no scientist thought to make an “identity unit” of Fassbinder so as to prevent world cinema from being the technocratic nightmare of CGI swill, robotic emotions, and silicone tits that it is today.  A delightful dystopian flick that does not wallow in technology fetishism, globalist propaganda, and senseless and soulless special effects, World on a Wire is undoubtedly one of the most enthralling portrayals of paranoia-based solipsism in cinema history.

 -Ty E

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