A Venn diagram meant to illustrate the intersection between art-house cinema and the sci-fiction genre might be sparsely populated, but its occupants certainly would be an illustrious coterie, among them Andrei Tarkovsky's ruminative companion pieces Solaris and Stalker, Chris Marker's photo-apocalyptic La Jetée, and rounded out by Jean-Luc Godard's satirical Alphaville. The latter's influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire is inarguable, extending beyond a view of urban alienation articulated via the tackiest of modern design to include a cameo from Lemmy Caution himself, Eddie Constantine. Based on Simulacron-3, a 1964 novel by American writer Daniel F. Galouye, the made-for-TV World on a Wire explores the psychological, philosophical, and existential uncertainties underlying the use and abuse of virtual reality.
While it's difficult to dissociate VR from the context of mainframes and monitors, it was first used by the surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud in his treatise on art and artifice, The Theater and Its Double. Both theatricality and reflexivity, naturally enough, abound in World on a Wire. Fassbinder surrounds his naturalistic lead, Klaus Löwitsch, with flagrantly histrionic acting styles and still-life tableaux, and fills his mise-en-scène with endlessly reflecting mirrors, bouncing the image back and forth until viewers have scant idea which side of the looking glass they occupy. World on a Wire's "levels of reality" storyline anticipates an entire cycle of films ranging from the bullet-time ballyhoo of the Matrix trilogy to the disconcerting low-fi dystopia of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, while its future noir aesthetic clearly presages the moody atmospherics of Blade Runner.
Although World on a Wire's narrative tectonics adhere closely to its source material, Fassbinder takes every opportunity to thumb his nose at viewer expectations. When Dr. Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), the "father" of the Simulacron computer, elects to let his security chief in on a secret that "could destroy this world," Fassbinder quickly tracks the camera back to the other side of the room and fills the soundtrack with galling industrial whine. Characters go around in literal circles, over the course of many a scene, followed in elegant tracking shots by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus's ever-roving camera. In an early scene, when Fred Stiller (Löwitsch), introduced as a tuxedo-clad Bond parody who even introduces himself as "Stiller, Fred Stiller," attempts to seduce a buxom secretary, Fassbinder cues the overture from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde on the soundtrack, music so unabashedly hyperbolic as to be swooningly artificial.
The film's best sound gag comes about midway, in an oh-so-important scene wherein Stiller is called on to explain the workings of Simulacron for a roomful of journalists. Fassbinder nearly drowns him out with the lilting strains of Strauss's Blue Danube waltz, at once confounding an audience's need for simplistic-mechanistic explanations and giving the nod to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Humor and histrionics never belie the weighty subject matter. Stiller's ontological ambiguity drives him to the brink. Fear and despair (words that feature in several Fassbinder titles) are his constant companions. World on a Wire doesn't always allow you to share the weight of its protagonist's anxiety, in the way that later films like Martha or In a Year of 13 Moons effortlessly will. It's a bit too aloof for all that. Still, it's a fascinating and dynamic film, packed with intriguing ideas and soaked in a moody ambience, and a welcome addition to an iconoclastic director's already extensive catalogue.
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The Fassbinder Foundation's digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, works wonders on the full-frame 16mm original, retaining healthy levels of grain, while bringing color and clarity into sharp focus. The transfer's not entirely free, however, from artifacts: In the making-of supplement, which briefly touches on some of the restoration work, Ballhaus refers to them as "fuzzballs." But I have to agree with him that they're never a real distraction. The lossless mono soundtrack does fine by the dialogue (which is, after all, subtitled) and even better by Gottfried Hüngsberg's wild and wooly score, especially the shrill discordant whine that signals Stiller's mental anguish, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's ironic, contrapuntal use of well-known classical pieces under two key scenes.
German film scholar Gerd Gemünden nicely lays out, over the course of a 30-minute interview intercut with relevant clips, the thematic and stylistic linkages between World on a Wire and the bulk of Fassbinder's filmography. He pays particular attention to Fassbinder's compulsive, wall-to-wall use of mirrors, Ballhaus's elegant camerawork, the ways in which choice of locations and set design added to the future noir look of the film, and the contributions of the stock company of actors Fassbinder used time after time. Even more in-depth is "Fassbinder's World on a Wire: Looking Ahead to Today," a making-of documentary produced by Juliane Lorenz, onetime Fassbinder editor and muse, now head of the Fassbinder Foundation. Interviewees include Ballhaus, co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz, and actor Karl-Heinz Vosgerau. Müller-Scherz discusses writing the script with Fassbinder on weekend jaunts in Paris, where they decided to shoot most of the film; their approach to the source material; and how they ingratiated their way into the Alcazar nightclub and wound up filming the "Lili Marleen" musical number there. Vosgerau goes into Fassbinder's technique with actors, and how the director achieved a certain alienation effect by mixing his own repertory actors with older, now-faded popular film stars from the 1950s like Adrian Hoven and Ivan Desny.
Criterion presents World on a Wire, a rediscovered Fassbinder mindbender, in a luxe Blu-ray transfer, along with some choice extras.