A Fanatical Ode to “World on a Wire”
Published on May 15th, 2012 | by Rebecca A. Brown0
Running time: 212 minutes. In German with English subtitles.
New German Cinema wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed over forty films in roughly sixteen years. His inimitable oeuvre includes grotesquely poignant adaptations of “Gaslight” (“Martha,” (1973)), “All That Heaven Allows” (“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1973)), and “Sunset Boulevard” (“Veronika Voss” (1981)). He also displayed a sublime talent for genre torquing in his lethargic noir with an animated corpse ending (“The American Soldier” (1970)), his scathing French comedy of manners parody (“Chinese Roulette” (1976)), and the most vibrant S&M western ever filmed (“Whity” (1970)). As if these achievements didn’t already distinguish him from his contemporaries, such as the ever-unsettling Werner Herzog, the theater-trained Fassbinder also frequently channeled Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater into a cinematic medium, usually with an absurdist or Pirandellian twist. Fassbinder’s only science-fiction noir film “World on a Wire” (1973) uncannily anticipates “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and “Inception” (amongst many others). As film scholar Gerd Gemünden explains in a perceptive interview made for this Criterion DVD release, much of “World on a Wire”’s uncanny anticipation is rooted in the film’s source material, “Simulacron 3” (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye, a sci-fi novel that is, like Fassbinder’s film, light years ahead of its time. Although viewers do not need to be well-versed in Fassbinder, Plato, existentialism, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, classic Hollywood cinema, or Brecht to enjoy his phenomenal made-for-television film, I would suggest at least a passing interest in film noir or science fiction as well as keen eyes and a touch of patience. “World on a Wire” is alarmingly fast-paced for a Fassbinder film, but by today’s non-existent attention span standards it might seem sluggish. Moreover, special effects are scarce and the tech-savvy sets and props, when seen at all, are delightfully ’70s tacky. Nonetheless, the film is a superlative viewing experience for several reasons, including, but not limited to a brilliant ensemble cast and the director’s stylistic flourishes that make Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis’ tricks look like those of film school interns.
“World on a Wire” begins with a bleak exterior establishing shot positioned with the gates of the IKZ Institute (Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology) that foregrounds the first half of the film’s alluring and significant emphasis on the color white. Inside the Institute, viewers are introduced to three key figures: Dr. Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), director of the Simulacron Project; Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau), head of the Institute; and Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), Chief of Security. In a white room without black curtains, Vollmer, Siskins, and Lause meet with Secretary of State Von Weinlaub and his assistant, Hirse, to discuss the Simulacron Project. As viewers, we learn virtually nothing about Simulacron in this scene; however, we do witness Dr. Vollmer’s exquisite performance as the proverbial mad scientist. When asked to explain “the state of things” to Von Weinlaub, Vollmer whips out a pocket mirror, tells him to look into it, and states, “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Jarred by this arresting response, Siskins tells Lause to escort Vollmer to his own office. Here, Vollmer discloses his knowledge about Simulacron to Lause, but viewers are (again and purposefully) brilliantly deprived of this information. Shortly thereafter, Vollmer departs for the computer room, with Lause in pursuit; sadly, yet predictably for a man who knows too much, the doctor drops dead.
The film immediately cuts to Siskins’s party where we meet sci-fi noir hero Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) enacting a subversive performance of James Bond. (For instance, when approached by the obligatory seductive woman who places her arms on his shoulders, Stiller dead-pans, “It’s padding, not muscles,” and hilariously he can’t obtain his drink of choice—whiskey with water—until Siskins orders it for him). After Stiller wanders through rooms replete with a Marlene Dietrich impersonator, a swimming pool that redefines “camp,” and mannequin-esque guests, Lause appears and clandestinely asks Stiller if they can talk. Midway through their conversation, as Lause is about to disclose Dr. Vollmer’s secret to Dr. Stiller, the vampy Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin), Siskins’s secretary, interrupts him by dropping her glass. When Stiller turns around to resume his conversation, Lause has “vanished into thin air.”
The intrepid Stiller, whom Siskins appoints to the position of Simulacron Technical Director in the aftermath of Vollmer’s death, spends the remainder of the film’s first part (Disc 1) attempting to uncover Vollmer’s secret and Lause’s whereabouts. He also becomes ambivalently entangled with Vollmer’s daughter, Eva (Mascha Rabben), endures the seductive gaze Gloria (who has been appointed by Siskins as his replacement secretary), chats with the Institute’s semi-suspicious psychologist Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck), and begins to uncover Simulacron mysteries with his helpful Institute tech friend Fritz Walfang (Günter Lamprecht). It is not until a press conference 1 hour and 22 minutes into the film (a press conference that partially situates viewers as the ravenous journalists themselves), that Fassbinder fully reveals the nuances of the Simulacron project. Simulacron is a simulated world that resembles so-called consensus reality, inhabited by “identity units” who believe they are living human beings. Its purpose is to help anticipate the most pressing consumerist, transportation, and manufacturing needs of the near future.
At the end of Part I, Stiller finally uncovers Vollmer’s secret—that he inhabits the simulated world (rather than the real world), and that he and his acquaintances are nothing more than identity units. The film’s second half (Disc 2) charts Stiller’s burgeoning cognizance of this alarming revelation, which results in his own Dr. Vollamer-styled slip into quasi-insanity. Siskins’s failed attempt to institutionalize his technical director catalyzes a suspenseful 30-40 minute ode-to-noir chase, wherein Stiller eludes the police, witnesses Hahn’s death, briefly hangs out with Eddie Constantine in the back of a Rolls Royce (fans of Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi noir film “Alphaville” will rejoice), makes an ally with journalist Rupp (Kurt Raab), and discovers that Eva is in love for him. Shortly before the film’s end, Eva reveals that she’s from the “real world” and seeks to save Stiller from the assassination Siskins has orchestrated for him. The film’s final minutes masterfully culminate with Stiller’s transition from the supposedly simulated world to the supposedly real world intercut with his death in the former. However, Fassbinder provides enough scenic clues at the end to ensure a great deal of ambiguity. One might not only ask, as Gemünden suggests, what kind of future Stiller and Eva will have, but also, is Stiller really in the real world?
Gemünden’s interview thoughtfully and lucidly contextualizes “World on a Wire” within the director’s oeuvre and discusses the uniqueness of his television film work. Fassbinder fanatics will gleefully nod as the film scholar examines the ways that mirrors, the gaze, surveillance, and power plays permeate not only “World on a Wire” but also the filmmaker’s other works, such as “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1972). Likewise, as Gemünden details and as Fassbinder initiated readers may have already gleaned, “World on a Wire” is suffused with several actors who populate his other films, resurrected German (and French) actors from the 1950s and 1960s, and his stylistic/filmic touches, including visually and thematically contrasting scenes, lethargic actors, jarring uses of music, and camera tricks that frequently undermine viewers’ (and Stiller’s) attempts to obtain knowledge about Simulacron. (Gemünden does not link these stylistic flourishes to Fassbinder’s Brechtian ethos, a way to expose the mechanisms of filmmaking as artificial as a simulated world itself).
Another DVD extra, the 2010 documentary “‘World on a Wire’: Looking Ahead to Today” offers several fascinating details about the film’s production. Viewers will, for instance, learn about Fritz Müller-Scherz and Fassbinder’s hilariously unique writing process, the rationale for shooting much of the film in Paris, and the director’s disgust and annoyance with the Paris stuntmen who showed up to stage Hahn’s death scene (his car plummets into a lake). The documentary also includes insightful information about some of the key actors, and nearly everyone interviewed remarks upon the joys of working with Fassbinder, despite his domineering ways. In addition to these extras, the booklet accompanying the DVDs includes a brief yet enlightening essay, “The Hall of Mirrors” by Ed Halter, that not only contextualizes the film’s sci-fi predecessors and antecessors but also utilizes Fassbinder’s love of Douglas Sirk as a point of departure for an analysis of the film’s use of mirrors and monitors to “raise questions about the relationship of illusion and identity” (Halter). Criterion has, in short, created a brilliant package whose only shortcoming is the fact that Fassbinder’s essay on “World on a Wire” is not included in the DVD booklet.
DVD extras aside, I would like to share a few more reasons why “World on a Wire” inhabits a space in my Fassbinder top five list. Löwitsch plays a brilliant noir (anti) hero. Gemünden highlights his “charisma” and suggests that his performance is reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s noir roles, yet it also includes shades of Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer (“Kiss Me Deadly”) and Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins (“The Third Man”). But it contains something uniquely his own, as well. Löwitsch convincingly portrays every nuance of Stiller’s character with a panache especially impressive since (as the documentary reveals) he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol for most of the film. His combination of vulnerability (when his throbbing headaches accompanied by Star Trek-y music cause him to faint), cleverness (when Gloria is appointed as his secretary, the look on his face, rather than his words, articulates his knowledge that something is amiss), verbal dynamism (his confrontations with Siskins), and physical dynamism (his escape from the men in white suits and flight from his cabin before it blows up) establish him as a noir protagonist par excellence. But his performance is not the only arresting one in the film. Arguably all the actors, including the nearly mute El Hedi Ben Salem (Fassbinder’s titular Ali) as a suited Siskins thug, and the always marvelous Margit Carstensen (Fassbinder’s titular Petra) as Stiller’s affectionate first secretary, utter their lines, control their physical movements, and inhabit space in remarkably graceful, precise ways that serve not only as a testament to their own acting prowess but also to Fassbinder’s direction. For instance, although Vollmer and Lause appear only briefly in the film (their swift disappearances probably serve as Fassbinder’s ironic nod to the actors’ vanishing from the film world prior to their “World on a Wire” resurrection), the former is captured in a medium shot, his hair awry, and his face so devastated that the shot remains seared in memory for the entire viewing. Lause’s evident paternal care for Vollmer and pre-disappearance paranoia is so delicately rendered that one can’t help but hope for much of the film that he might magically reappear.
Fassbinder’s discerning use of color is likewise on display in “World on a Wire.” Although blues and pinks suffuse the computer room, and his dinners with Eva are decked in rich, dark Victorian hues, given my architectural obsessions with white (I thank Le Corbusier and Mark Wigley), predictably half my notes center on this color. The whiter-than-white offices of the Institute that dominate the first part of the film not only emphasize the antiseptic nature of the simulated world but also provide a compelling parallel to poetic white space. Similar to the white space situated between stanzas, lines, and (even) words within poems, which offer the opportunity for pauses, contemplation, and connection between the written text, the white walls of the Institute’s offices are punctuated by the furniture, objects, and reflective surfaces (serving as parts of the cinematic text) which connect and disconnect parts of the rooms from each other as well as allow the eye to occasionally rest (or pause) from an over-abundance of visual stimuli. As Stiller moves outside the Institute in the second part of the film, the color white appears less frequently—the simulated world, while still mostly gray outside, becomes a little more colorful in both interior and exterior spaces likely to underscore Stiller’s en-lightenment.
In terms of other visual delights, I’d be remiss not to highlight Fassbinder’s two nightclub scenes and the film’s circularity. The first nightclub scene, Gloria and Stiller’s date, shows the femme fatale in a skin-tight full-length red dress, roaming a dance floor inhabited by nearly naked black dancers. As she touches the male dancers, the jarring contrast between skin colors not only reinforces the film’s black and white Institute palette (combining the men’s dark suits with their white surroundings), but also highlights her fetishistic treatment of the “other” (this alarming yet always knowing fetishization of the “other” appears in several other Fassbinder films). The second nightclub scene (occurring in the same space as the first), wherein Stiller attempts to hide from his pursuers, features the Marlene Dietrich impersonator’s return from earlier in the film. On stage she sings “Lili Marlene”; before she finishes, four men performing as Nazis theatrically shoot her. The performance not only microcosmically anticipates Stiller’s fate but offers unsettlingly moving commentary on Germany’s recent traumatic past (I say “unsettling” because the scene is so aesthetically pleasing, viewers may feel self-loathing while watching it—which is precisely what Fassbinder may have intended).
While these two scenes emphasize the film’s circularity, Fassbinder’s camera circularity also underscores Stiller’s increasing disorientation within his simulated world. For instance, the director includes two 360-degree camera sweeps in the second half of the film—once in the computer room, once at Stiller’s apartment—(in addition to a 240-degree sweep at his cabin) that will challenge vertigo sensitive viewers. An even more masterful use of circularity occurs in the first half of the film when Stiller joins Siskins for a meeting with Mr. Hartmann (who is on a “government appointed commission” known as Perspective 2000, and also serves in the “capacity of chairman of United Steel, Inc.”). In this scene, Siskins and Hartmann are virtually immobile, seated on white sofas with a mirror behind them to emphasize their one-dimensionality (in terms of character traits). Midway through the conversation, Stiller walks through the room, stops to spin in a desk chair, and then opens four sets of white double-doors. These actions emphasize his annoyance with the circular and superficial conversation. Thus, while we assume he’s leaving the room in disgust, as soon as he’s walked through the doorways, Stiller is back in the same room he left, only this time, further in the background; this seemingly futile series of movements highlights his psychic and physical entrapment. Later in the scene, as he walks closer to the two men, he is captured in the same mirror their backs are towards; in a single shot, viewers see Stiller doubled yet fragmented (due to the line in the mirror) in the background while in the scene’s foreground, Siskins and Hartmann sit parallel to each other, in nearly the same physical position, their hands mirroring each other’s, their clothing nearly identical. Viewers may instantly lose the thread of the discussion due to the uncanny double doubling (much the point) and likely have to rewatch the scene to ensure that vital plot information hasn’t been misplaced. Notably, the only way for the viewer’s eyes to rest (and possibly catch the conversation), is to look for the small gaps of white walls, which Fassbinder deprives the viewer of for at least a third of the short scene.
Fassbinder died in 1982 at the age of 37, but despite his brief life, film viewers should rejoice at his prolificacy and Criterion’s ongoing efforts to package and circulate his films. My sincerest and most selfish hope is that the company’s next Fassbinder resurrection is “Lili Marleen” (1980) because I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Hanna Schygulla and Giancarlo Giannini sharing screen time and space. Until that illustrious day arrives, I plan to feed my Fassbinder obsession with repeated viewings of his non-Criterion releases and make yearly returns to “World on a Wire” and the “BRD Trilogy” (1978-81). Perhaps if I discover that my existence is little more than a simulation, I can conjure fifteen straight hours of imaginary time to watch all of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1979-80) or urge my real-life counterpart to drop all the minutiae of one of her undoubtedly important days to spend more time basking in the awesomeness that is Fassbinder.