Pardon me if I get a little choked up, but this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder we’re talking about. The term “force of nature” may be greatly overused, but there’s no better description for the dynamo that powered the New German Cinema through sheer force of will and boundless prolificacy; when he burned out in 1982 at the age of 37, so did the entire movement. This “sweaty, grunting wild boar crashing through the underbrush” (as Werner Herzog described him) left in his wake more than forty films made over just thirteen years (not to mention numerous plays), some of them hit-it-and-quit opuses shot in mere days (like the brilliant “Katzelmacher”), others sprawling epics that ran for days, or close to it (like the brilliant “Berlin Alexanderplatz”). Quite simply, there never has been and never will be anyone like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and anything associated with him is imbued with a unique aura.
While few people have seen every Fassbinder film, his work has generally been well-circulated, and he was one of the earlier European directors whose catalog was made widely available on DVD in North America. So there is a special thrill in knowing that thirty years after his death, we have a “new” Fassbinder film to watch. Not only that, but we have a new kind of Fassbinder film, his only science-fiction movie.
“World on a Wire” (1973), his seventeenth feature (shot a mere four years after his debut film “Love is Colder than Death”), originally aired as a two-part series for German television, was never quite a lost film, but it mostly existed in bootleg form until its extensive 2010 restoration and theatrical release by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. If you weren’t lucky enough to live near a specialty video store or have just the right friends, it remained just a tantalizing entry in the literature (Fassbinder does sci-fi? Oh my!), but now it has arrived on DVD and Blu-ray. It has most definitely been worth the wait.
I was torn between two thoughts while watching this kaleidoscopic masterpiece. First, “Oh my God, I’m watching a great Fassbinder film I’ve never seen before!” Second, “Oh my God, this is the last time I’ll ever watch a great Fassbinder film I’ve never seen before!” No more lost jewels, this is it. And so I savored every second of this 212-minute odyssey, from the Criterion logo to the rhapsodic closing credits cut to Fleetwood Mac’s soulful instrumental “Albatross.” It wasn’t enough, but it will have to do.
The story, based on a 1964 novel by Daniel F. Galouye, might sound familiar. A supercomputer has been designed to construct and maintain a virtual reality in which thousands of “identity units” live and play without the faintest idea that they are just a mass of circuits. Real users can plug into this Simulacron too, and enter the virtual world, if only for a little while. Eventually they need to rush to a pay phone in order to access the “call” that ushers them back to reality. If the film was seldom-seen prior to its restoration, rest assured the Wachowski brothers were among the lucky few to catch it.
Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) is a researcher at the institute that runs the Simulacron, and he soon finds himself enmeshed in a Lynchian mystery involving murder, corporate intrigue, disappearing colleagues, and a series of all-around mindfucks that call into question the nature of reality itself. This is Fassbinder’s universe, so everyone is using their power to exploit everyone with less power, and if Klaus thought he was a high muck-a-muck, he has another think coming. Men in trench coats, men in business suits, men in police uniforms – they’re all out to get him, but as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly uncertain that there’s actually anything to get. Has Klaus, like his virtual creations, just been fooling himself into believing he is anything more than a mass of circuits? Is there another “above” above his “above”? Yeah, you better believe the Wachowskis were watching.
A story suggesting the existence of multiple levels of reality (or illusion) was the perfect pretext for Fassbinder to indulge his fetish for mirrors and mirror-images. In one intricate take after another, the camera (operated by the great Michael Ballhaus) moves from reflection to reflected and back again, with faces often shot through distorted glass, fishbowls, and pretty much that anything that warps perception. These stylistic flourishes may not be a particularly subtle expression of the theme, but man is it a glory to behold. Let me quote from my viewing notes: “Holy hell, what set design!”
Knowing the arc of Fassbinder’s career, it’s surprising that “World on a Wire” was shot so early. The ornate mise-en-scene and elaborate tracking shots are a preview of what was to come with defining late-career works like “Veronika Voss” (1982). It’s hard to believe this glittering, intricate machine-work was sandwiched between the chamber drama “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” and the social realism of “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” but Fassbinder was infinite, and his multitudes cannot be contained by any simple-minded attempt to parcel his career into distinct phases. With “World on a Wire” he and Ballhaus showed they were ready to strut their stuff on a grand scale.
As science-fiction, “World on a Wire” now seems eerily prescient (it doesn’t quite predict a future of slack-jawed droolers attached to their umbilical iPhones, but its world dominated by glowing screens within screens comes close), though much of the credit belongs to Galouye, one of the first writers (along with Phillip K. Dick) to conjure images of our virtual future. Like most good “futuristic” movies, “World on a Wire” is also a film unmistakably of its time: watch any five second clip and you’ll guess “early 70s!” with confidence. Its menagerie of sideburns could not have been corralled in any other period, and by reveling in this specificity rather than striving vainly for a timeless quality, the movie is all the more poignant when viewed today.
There are many small treats for Fassbinder fans too. The mixture of camp (shirtless, dark-skinned muscle-men lurk in every kitchen and in every conveniently-placed pool) and noir paranoia promises a Gotterglammerung good time for all, and appearances by El Hedi ben Salem as a nameless, sharp-dressed agent and the curvaceously curvy Barbara Valentin as the ersatz femme fatale are reminders of the glory of the Fassbinder troupe. And of course, there are the mirrors. Oh, how Fassbinder loved mirrors, even more than his idol Douglas Sirk, and never did he deploy them more skillfully than in this fun-house mind-bender. For the mirrors alone, “World on a Wire” would be worth the trip, but as a harbinger of things to come both in Fassbinder’s work and in the science-fiction genre, it is fascinating. And as the last great “new” Fassbinder film many of us will ever get to see, it is something truly special. Am I a little choked up about it all? You bet.
The film is presented in two parts, both presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “World on a Wire” was originally shot on 16mm film. I don’t know how well it was preserved (after its television broadcast, it was pretty much just shelved as Fassbinder moved on to his next project, and his next, and his next.) As extensive as the restoration was, there are still blemishes visible in certain scenes, and the overall look has a thickness to it that is pleasing, but still lacking in sharpness. I can’t say this high-def transfer really sparkles, but it’s still more than strong enough to show up the great set design and camerawork by Ballhaus.
The LPCM Mono audio track is pretty clean throughout, but doesn’t have a particularly dynamic range. It’s probably not supposed to, though some of the audio design in the film is quite evocative. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.
“Fassbinder’s ‘World on a Wire’: Looking Ahead to Today” (2010, 50 min.) is a documentary about the making of the film directed by Juliane Lorenz of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. The documentary takes place during the restoration of the film, and includes interviews with Michael Ballhaus, writer Fritz Muller-Scherz (who co-wrote the screenplay with Fassbinder), and actor Karl-Heinz Vosgerau among others. It’s safe to say that nobody who worked with Fassbinder has forgotten about their collaboration.
The disc also includes an interview with film scholar Gerd Gemunden (34 min.) which is definitely worth watching in its entirety for the depth of knowledge offered. The collection is rounded with a trailer from the 2010 restoration.
The surprisingly slim 12-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Ed Halter.
I finally got to see Fassbinder’s science-fiction movie! How am I supposed to put a value on that? Let’s just say it didn’t disappoint even my very high expectations. And “Matrix” fans, here’s your chance to see where it all got started. Highly recommended.