I think therefore I am, right? Wrong. Platonic logic — and for that matter most other forms of comforting logic — is nil in German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 made-for-TV epic World on a Wire. While it seems now that the late Fassbinder is known more for his profuse catalog of films rather than the films themselves, World on a Wire may just put him back in the cultural consciousness. Almost 40 years later, the miniseries feels hyper-relevant for our times and fetishes. Its incisive postulation of the virtual realities awaiting us no doubt laid the prototype for films like Blade Runner (1982), Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999) and yes, that magnum dopus Inception (2010).
Based on the 1964 novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Gayoule, this long-unseen German saga clocks in at an uber-long 205 minutes more suited to serial viewing than single-sitting. And yet just as the excess starts to bloat, Fassbinder wraps it all up in a gloriously nutso conclusion. Digitally restored in a brand-schpanking-new print by the Fassbinder Foundation, World on a Wire redux premiered at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival and screened last April at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. Now in a limited run nationwide, the film opens this Friday/29 thru Thursday, Aug/4 at the Roxie Theater. (Fassbinder smartly cleft the film into two parts, so there will be an intermission.)
When:Friday, July 29 – Thursday, August 4
Where: The Roxie, 3117 16th Street between Valencia and Guerrero
By age 37, when he was found dead alone in his apartment after an overdose, R.W. Fassbinder had written and directed over 40 films, beginning with the short This Night in 1965 and ending with Querelle in 1982. Brave men have tried and failed to see all these films. Some are lost or forgotten. But to the delight of cinephiles (and probably cinephiles only) World on a Wire has risen from the celluloid cemetery. And what a vision she is.
Genre trappings aside, the film’s premise is quite simple: sometime in the future (the not-too-distinguishable-from-the-present future) a cybernetics institute launches the Simulacron, a computer simulation program that virtually reproduces our world. People can plug in and out, and the community is already inhabited by so-called “identity units” equipped with all the features of a human. But whoever operates the supercomputer can easily insert or erase these avatars.
When the technical director of Simulacron dies under mysterious circumstances, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch, whose hard face and cavalier quality suggest a Deutschman’s Jack Nicholson) assumes the role of acting director and gets embroiled in a shadowy plot of neo-noir proportions along the way. His friend Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny) disappears, literally, in the middle of a conversation. And afterward, no one seems to remember who Lause was. The oft-asked question “Who is Guenther Lause?” proves as puzzling an enigma as Ayn Rand’s “Who is John Galt?”
All the while Stiller is seized by dizzy spells and seduced by two slinky yet curiously unctuous women (Mascha Rabben and Barbara Valentin, a Fassbinder alumna). All of this has something to do with the Simulacron, and while you might know where Wire is headed from the outset, there’s a torrent of surprises to be had.
For a film that seeks to lose itself, and us, in a giddy Mobius strip of nested narratives-within-narratives, it’s remarkably controlled. Fassbinder’s trademark, tightly constructed aesthetic is well suited for the 4-by-3 small screen. Kubrick also explored this aspect ratio, and Fassbinder tips his hat more than a few times to my man Stan. The cold gaze of the supercomputer certainly recalls the obelisk in 2001.
Yet Fassbinder brings a certain flamboyance to the auteur table. The movie is downright campy, despite the formalist structure enclosing it. The circumspect Stiller often finds himself running through glass high-rises, stark garages and sordid nightclubs, and these scenes feel more cheeky than thrilling.
The carefully coiffed costumes and art direction summon nostalgia for the garish pomp of Weimar-era Germany. Considering that the man also helmed 24 plays, Fassbinder’s stage background is at the forefront, here. The film grounds sci-fi genre contrivances — which often give way to plot holes, and Fassbinder has no problem sheathing them with muddy narrative skeins — in theatricality. Everything is as over the top and unnaturalistic as it is out of kilter. There’s no shortage of rapid zooms, stagey dialogue and characters unnecessarily spinning in place at the drop of a narrative bomb.
Fassbinder incessantly pumps an air of dread into every shot. The elevator-like music underscoring each scene creates unshakable unease and a creepy sort of familiarity. Experiencing this film is like sitting in the waiting room from cyber-hell, always anticipating the next red herring that’s going to fly your way. In scenes where suited men meet in the wall-to-wall glass rooms of the institute, Fassbinder deploys his typically roving camera, encircling his subjects as a snake surrounds its prey, poised to subsume it in its apparatus. In spite of Fassbinder’s rich visual palette and occasional dose of burlesque humor, the film is decidedly dark.
Living in the time of Second Life and other less literal virtual communities, it’s hard to see, through all those 0s and 1s, how we got here and the potential ramifications of playing god. World on a Wire is a more frightening and subversive cogitation on this idea than any 21st century examples I can think of because it needs no big-budget, no CGI, no 3-D, 4-D or anything of the kind to cut right to the core of a major philosophical quandary.
At the end of these arresting 205 minutes, when Fassbinder finally pulls the plug, awakening us with Fleetwood Mac’s baptismal “Albatross,” we tell ourselves I am, I am, I am. Just to be sure.
For the complete schedule and showtimes, visit the the Roxie Theater’s website.