World on a Wire: Criterion Collection
February 20, 2006
Based on Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 science fiction novel Simulacron-3, World on a Wire (1973) is a two-part miniseries Rainer Werner Fassbinder made for German television while taking a break from filming Effi Briest (1974). It was relegated to obscurity for many years with the exception of the occasional theatrical screening before being digitally restored in 2010. He created a proto-Cyberpunk film, a cerebral science fiction story that wrestles with the nature of reality.
Professor Vollmer (Hoven) has been working on the Simulacron, a supercomputer that has created an artificial world (before William Gibson coined the term Cyberspace) populated by incredibly life-like artificial constructs from digital information to the point where they believe that they’re real. However, he mysteriously drops dead after complaining of horrible headaches.
Researcher Fred Stiller (Lowitsch) is brought in to investigate Vollmer’s death and ends up uncovering a conspiracy within the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology, the corporation behind the Simulacron. The first day Stiller arrives, head of security Gunther Lause (Desny) disappears right in the middle of a conversation with the researcher! He searches Vollmer’s office and finds a cryptic drawing and an equally elusive daughter (Rabben) of the deceased professor.
Stiller then talks to a fellow co-worker who points out the head of security, a man who is not Lause! Stranger still, Stiller meets a woman that tries to kill him by leading him to a place where a payload of concrete is dropped on him. His usual secretary is replaced by buxom blonde woman who listens in on his conversations. Stiller does find out that Vollmer was on the verge of an earth-shattering discovery but what is exactly remains frustratingly elusive.
The corporation dabbles in virtual reality and at one point, Stiller enters a world through the eyes of a truck driver and this brings into question of what is real and what isn’t. After all, he oversees an artificial world where he can add and delete its inhabitants. Stiller begins to question his own reality. What if he is actually living inside the artificial world within the computer?
Visually, World on a Wire anticipates science fiction films like Blade Runner (1982), with its artificial beings that are incredibly life-like; Strange Days (1995) with its point-of-view virtual reality scenes; and The Matrix (1999), with phones as a way to get in and out of the virtual world – only a much lower budget and without the use of special effects. Fassbinder manages to convey a futuristic world through an imaginative set design and art direction, and inventive camera techniques, which result in things like videophones and video screens.
Early on, a character says, “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” It’s a rather fitting line for a film that is all about levels of perception and reality. What starts off as a mysterious disappearance of a scientist, becomes a fascinating treatise about the pervasive presence of technology in our lives. The vast corporate conspiracy that Stiller uncovers is merely genre trappings that allow Fassbinder to examine bigger themes. With World on a Wire, he anticipates science fiction films in the 1980s and 1990s that would also examine reality-manipulating technology and protagonists that struggle with their own humanity and identity but in retrospect appear to owe a huge debt to Fassbinder’s film.
The first disc features an interview with Fassbinder scholar Gerd Gemunden. He points out that even though Fassbinder was regarded as an art house film director, he wanted to make popular, mainstream films and so World on a Wire was made for T.V. Gemunden also talks about the film’s place in New German Cinema.
Also included is a 2010 theatrical re-release trailer.
The second disc includes a 50-minute retrospective documentary entitled, “Fassbinder’s World on a Wire: Looking Ahead to Today.” Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus recalls some of his experiences making it. Co-screenwriter Fritz Muller-Schertz talks about how he and Fassbinder gave up part of their salaries to pay for the rights to the source novel. He mentions that they sought out futuristic-looking architecture for their near-future world. This is an excellent and informative making of doc.