One of the most exciting DVD releases of the year occurs Monday in the UK, when World on a Wire arrives as a two-disc edition from Second Sight. The cult science fiction TV movie by Rainer Werner Fassbinder had scarcely been seen since its 1973 broadcast, but a new restoration wowed critics at the Berlin film festival and MoMA earlier this year. The film deserves to enter the pantheon of great SF movies.
It’s a close adaptation of Daniel Galouye’s 1964 Counterfeit World, a virtual reality novel years ahead of its time; although human connections to machines and alternate realities occasionally appear in SF literature, it wasn’t until the 1980s that cyberpunk emerged as an identifiable genre. Which explains why those of us even moderately familiar with authors such as William Gibson or Bruce Sterling found The Matrix (1999) an arduous slog, notable more for its photogenic violence and digital effects than anything approaching “new ideas.”
World on a Wire is set in the near future (Fassbinder and company shot the film in “futuristic” looking places they found in Paris, Alphaville-wise). A cybernetics company programs a supercomputer to simulate a population of “identity units” with artificial intelligence that will predict human behavior in the real world. When the company’s lead designer commits suicide under mysterious circumstances, his successor, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), takes on the job, but soon faces his own mental breakdown when strange events and logical inconsistencies begin to haunt him.
Shifting details, names, and events force Stiller to question his perceptions: is the psychological stress of his new position (intensified when his employer courts private interests on the sly) taking its toll, or is he on the verge of a more unsettling discovery? Aside from a few budgetary omissions (flying cars, a revolution in the streets), the three-and-a-half hour film reproduces the book–which is more significant for its themes than its literary style–nearly scene-for-scene.
There have been a few reviews of the film in recent months, but I haven’t read any that really probe its most notable quality–its baroque visual style. While The Matrix and its ilk suggest artificial reality through the overt use of digital effects, Fassbinder and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus use everyday objects, props, and mise-en-scène to suggest a fabricated world, and the results are both more subtle and compelling. Some standout motifs (with clickable examples):
· Mirrors and a variety of glass and window panes that fragment and complicate space in the film. Many directors use mirror shots occasionally (with notable exceptions, such as Hitchock’s famous use of doubling reflections in Psycho), but Fassbinder–channeling Douglas Sirk–creates a virtual funhouse of duplicate imagery, invisible barriers, ambiguous spaces, and constant replications that emphasize the tricky division separating “real” and “artificial” realms.
· Visual clutter on par with the work of Josef von Sternberg (whom Fassbinder homages with a Marlene Dietrich double twice) or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The plethora of props and competing abstract patterns on carpets, wall art, and glittering surfaces, suggest not sensory overload so much as handmade, randomly filled, manufactured space.
· Spaces are often divided up by arbitrary lines: window blinds or screens, obfuscations dictated by the choice of camera angles. Like the slanting shadows of so many films noir, the visual lines suggest entrapment and a breaking up of space into puzzle-like mosaics.
· Fassbinder enjoys filming his protagonist in long hallways and tunnels, as he passes through offices and city streets in a maze without end.
Some of these motifs overlap and reinforce one another, and there are more, such as the long and brisk tracking shots that isolate figures by emphasizing their surroundings, the often present canned muzak that intensifies the world’s sense of artificiality, and a motif in which background extras (“identity units”?) stand idly in statuesque poses. In fact, virtually every shot in the movie riffs on one or more of the elements cited here, yet it never feels studied or academic; it’s a movie that plays with the limitations and freedoms of the television format with a great deal of energy and vigor.
World on a Wire is a major work with a dense construction that rewards close examination. It’s also one more reminder that our knowledge of film history is constantly evolving as important works arrive but vanish, awaiting rediscovery. The fact that such an ambitious work from such a well-known filmmaker could elude genre discussions for so long might be depressing if the excitement of finally seeing it wasn’t so substantial.