“Genius” is not a word to be thrown around lightly. There have been many masters in the history of cinema, but only once in a very long while does a genius come along. By my personal definition, a “genius filmmaker” is one who possesses the natural talent in the field at an early age and his/her creative vision is unlike anyone before him/her and will be hard to emulate by the ones who come after. German New Cinema wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder certainly fits the criteria. Rejected by Berlin Film School, Fassbinder spent a couple successful years in theater (much like another prodigy, Orson Welles) before his directorial debut in cinema with 1969’s Love is Colder Than Death. Between the years 1971 and 1973, the multi-talented Fassbinder has an output of ten films, either released theatrically or broadcasted on German television. Among them in this prolific period is World on a Wire, the two-part TV film Fassbinder made in 1973 which had faded into obscurity until its recent restoration.
Based on Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3, World on a Wire is set in a world where scientists at a government-funded institute named IKZ have developed a computer program that can simulate real-life conditions in an artificial world. Inside Simulacron, the world inside the computers, the programmers have created thousands of “identity units” whose reactions to the simulations can be used to predict the needs and trends of the real world. Dr. Henri Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), the technical director, becomes increasingly delusional and paranoid shortly before his death by accident. His colleague and replacement, Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), raises questions about the suspicious circumstances surrounding Vollmer’s demise. His doubts only grow stronger when another co-worker, Gunter Lause (Ivan Desny), vanishes right in front of his eyes and everyone else seems to have no memory or record of Lause’s existence. Meanwhile, Stiller’s boss and CEO of IKZ, Herbert Siskins, is plotting to use Simulacron to benefit United Steel, a corporation that hopes the new technology will help to predict the demands for its products. Unconvinced by their persuasion, Stiller takes aim at uncovering the sinister scheme behind the Vollmer-Lause incident.
Donning a tilted fedora that recalls the image of Joseph Cotten in The Third Man, Stiller questions the people of interest like a private eye in a noir— only instead of starkly contrasted black-and-white, Fassbinder treats us with the bright-lit colors of the Seventies. While going after his usual suspects, Stiller is also sidetracked by his attraction to his newly-hired voluptuous secretary, Gloria (Barbara Valentin), and Dr. Vollmer’s beautiful daughter, Eva (Mascha Rabben), whose cold as ice demeanor makes for a perfect Brechtian femme fatale. By the end of the first part, Stiller is knee-deep in a conspiracy that turns his world upside down. Haunted by his discovery, Stiller plunges to the pits of his paranoia. Is there a puppet master behind the scene trying to silence him? Or is he delusional and suffering a nervous breakdown?
Questions regarding reality and human consciousness have become hugely popular among science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and The Matrix. In all honesty, Fassbinder’s film is not an originator of these topics as they have been thoroughly explored in the writings of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. But I can’t help but marvel at how much World on a Wire is ahead of its time even in the most trivial detail: Stiller travels from the simulated world back to his reality by means of a pay phone— something that audience will see decades later in The Matrix. Fassbinder, however, has no desire to impress his audience with special effects. The set and costumes are not tailored to look futuristic but the director usual flamboyant sense of style is in no short supply: suit jackets with wide lapels, flared bottoms and luscious curls (for the women) are paired with the most ridiculously fabulous studio set. Fassbinder’s otherworldly ability to utilize mirrors (and other reflective objects) in a shot is absolutely mind-blowing. Scene after scene, he manages to find a way to use his actors reflection within the frame.
World on a Wire is often compared to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville because both films diverge from cheap thrills of what is expected of a sci-fi flick. It concerns itself with the existential dilemma that comes with our technology. Inside the world of Simulacron, none but one of the identity units knows that it is not real because the scientists figure their artificial beings will not be able to come to terms with living and functioning under such false pretense. “Einstein,” the only identity unit with this knowledge, serves as their insider when any systemic glitches need to be resolved. Hence when Einstein decides to escape to the real world, Stiller is forced to grapple with the possibility that what he knows as “reality” could just be a simulation of a world above him. The alienating acting style, which is heavily influenced by Fassbinder’s compatriot Bertolt Brecht, forces viewers to actively acknowledge that the film is only a representation of reality. Instead of immersing themselves into the story, viewers are given the opportunity to reflect on the same existential angst that Stiller has to face.
World on a Wire is playing at the MFAH on 10/7 (7:00pm), 10/8 (7:00pm) and 10/9 (5:00pm).