Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of the most important figures in German cinema, a workaholic who churned out over forty feature films, shorts and TV series (including the fifteen-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz), plus twenty four stage shows, in a decade and a half, before effectively exhausting himself to death (he died of a cocaine and barbiturate overdose, having turned to drugs to deal with his relentless workload). It’s surprising just how great most of his work is – under the circumstances, you might expect a few dips in quality, but the Fassbinder filmography is pretty consistent.
But you wouldn’t associate him with science fiction – his work is, otherwise, decidedly realist or historical in style. The 1973 TV two-part movie World on a Wire is, therefore, quite unexpected, and I’ll admit to approaching it with a degree of caution, unsure how his style would fit with a story that sounds like (and indeed, is) a precursor of The Matrix. But any doubts were allayed with the first few minutes, as the film sucks you in with a combination of gorgeous visuals and curious characterisation, quickly setting out a mystery that slowly, intricately unravels throughout the first 100 minute episode.
World on a Wire is set in a world that seems to be slightly futuristic (much of it was shot in Paris, where the shopping centres and high rises not yet found in West Germany gave the film an ultra-modern edge) yet also retro – the fashions, the hairstyles and the entertainments on offer frequently feel more 1930s than 1970s. There’s a reason for this, which is that nothing we see is necessarily real. The story centres around Simulcron-1, a revolutionary computer programme that creates an alternative reality – a world populated by some nine thousand CGI people (‘Identity Units’), which is used to predict trends for the future in simulated scenarios that can then be used to avoid unexpected social and marketplace shifts. Naturally, the system is of considerable interest to certain industrial companies, who are keen to use it to keep one step ahead of rivals. This is much to the chagrin of the enigmatic Dr Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), who is determined to get to the bottom of several interlocking mysteries, not least of which is the death of his predecessor and the disappearance if a colleague who only he remembers ever having existed.
Within this central mystery, Fassbinder takes Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulcron-3 and crafts a fascinating puzzle of a film, one that takes the entire first episode to reveal that nothing we have seen so far is true, and then goes on to explore ideas of identity and reality, wrapped in stunningly opulent visuals and moving at a languid pace that allows the viewer to be pulled in slowly, not quite understanding what is going on but being intrigued nonetheless. Unlike many a modern science fiction film with ideas above its station, World on a Wire masterfully wrangles its complex ideas and twisting narrative into something that makes perfect sense by the end, never trying to bamboozle the viewer but instead leading us through the mystery at the same speed as Stiller. It’s a slow burn movie, and if you are looking for explosive action then this won’t be for you – but the deliberate pace and sense of unreality keeps us suitably on edge and intrigued, knowing that things are not quite right. Just as significantly, the revelations and pay-offs when they come don’t seem contrived, but rather are satisfying and, in retrospect, obvious.
And Fassbinder does allow for a handful of action scenes, as well as moments of trippy weirdness and a use of exteriors that help give the film a sense of grandeur – the story might be a contained one in many ways (rightly so, given that it is dealing with miniature worlds within worlds) but the film nevertheless feels epic, and not just because of the length – which, by the way, should not be off-putting; this film can be watched in one sitting and never feels like it is lagging even though not very much is actually happening for a lot of the time.
Fassbinder fills his movie with mirrors – characters are often shown in reflection rather than in the flesh, which might seem a little on the nose with a story dealing with ideas about reality and simulation. After all, a mirror image is an unreal simulation of a person, perfect in every way but not actually existing. But it’s less a bulldozed metaphor than a subtle gesture in this film, thanks to the fact that he doesn’t labour the point and go out of his way to draw attention to it. In fact, Fassbinder’s direction here is spot-on – a light touch that nevertheless has a definite style, lifting this head and shoulders above much generic TV of the era in terms of visuals. It’s an unflashy stylishness that is ideal for a film that both reflects tedious normality and subverts it.
Much of the Fassbinder performing troupe are present here – Kurt Raab as a sinister rival for Stiller, Ulli Lommel as a journalist helping unearth the truth, Barbara Valentin as an unfeasibly glamorous secretary (her mere presence is a clue that things are perhaps not quite what they might seem to be), and Löwitsch himself – giving a nervy, erratic performance as a central character who it’s rather hard to relate to (which, as things go on, makes sense) – had worked with the director on several other films. It’s hard to judge performances by conventional standards, because the sense of unreality is clearly deliberate, but everyone involved is perfectly cast. Raab was also responsible for the art direction, giving the film its distinctive sense of retro-futurism (as writer Daniel Bird describes it) – something that feels every more retro and futurist almost half a century on, of course. Also worth mentioning here is Fassbinder’s use of music, that ranges from the original electronic score of Gottfried Hüngsberg, through classical music and cabaret standards like Lili Marleen to a surprisingly effective inclusion of Fleetwood mac’s Albertross as the moody closing credits theme.
If World on a Wire resembles anything, then it might be Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. This might not be accidental – Godard was an influence on Fassbinder, and just as World on a Wire was the German director’s only venture into science fiction, so Alphaville was Godard’s. It’s not so much the story that brings Alphaville to mind as much as the pacing, the dystopian concept and the use of modern cities as futuristic landscapes. And Alphaville too, of course, has a world controlled by a computer. As if to tell us that this suggestion is not just in our imaginations, Eddie Constantine – Godard’s Lemmy Caution – turns up towards the end of this film in a small but significant role.
World on a Wire is, of course, a relic of the past – it comes from a world where cinematic science fiction had just begun to mature and be taken seriously, a brief period of time that was effectively snuffed out by the space opera juvenilia of Star Wars. As a strange mix of arthouse sensibilities and pretty heavy science fiction ideas, it feels like a work of genuine substance and importance, and it’s one of Fassbinder’s finest works.