Viewers thinking that they have stumbled into a very rough draft of The Matrix while watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder's TV knock-off World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) should feel your sympathy. This lengthy 205-minute mini-series is science fiction in sound effects only, and really serves Fassbinder the chance to play with imagery he liked from American melodramas.
This despite the fact that the film is clearly influenced by Godard's 1965 faux sci-fi excursion Alphaville, event to the extent of casting that film's star Eddie Constantine in its second half.1 Yet the influences are really melodramatist Douglas Sirk and Andy Warhol, with a little Antonioni thrown in and with hommages made to Warhol's supposedly favorite movie, the excruciatingly boring yet still significant Creation of the Humanoids. Warhol liked that film because it was boring. If you are familiar with this incredibly talky movie, you will know where World on a Wire is going with that film's premise.
Aired originally on West German television in 1973, and based on a novel called Simulacron 3 by Daniel F. Galouye, Wire leisurely tells the tale of one Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch). He comes to the aid of a corporation with a government contract after his mentor, inventor Vollmer, dies suddenly and mysteriously, of "headaches." Vollmer's invention is a simulated world in a computer designed to guide futurologists about the shape of things to come. Stiller is followed, questioned, flirted with, intimidated by the corp.'s CEO, and even makes a trip of two into the simulated world, all while ostensibly trying to meet the boss's deadline and secretly trying to solve the mystery of … well, of something.
In a story about scientists that have created a simulated environment and whose predictions of what the future will be like in 20 years rely heavily on feedback from Einstein (Gottfried John), an artificial construct aware that it is only a computer program, the answer should seem fairly obvious (hint: Reality is, like, relative, man). And yet, it takes Stiller 100 minutes to come to the same conclusion you should be thinking about right now.
Aside from Fassbinder's film anticipating such successors as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, it's not really for sci-fi fans. Rather, it is for worshippers of the director and students of existential genre variations on the order of westerns such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller or crime melodramas like The Long Goodbye (both by Altman, in this case). Wire was made at the height of that time in the 1970s when directors young and old were questioning if not undermining the genre materials handed to them. Wire came in the middle of Fassbinder's 80-film, 13-year career, after The Merchant of Four Seasons, which brought him attention in New York City as part of the German New Wave, and before The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Effi Briest – that is, Fassbinder's foray into the structures of melodrama and the passions of female performers, of which Wire is in some small part a precursor.
Like Godard, Fassbinder utilizes existing places and settings to create his "futuristic" world. It's a world in which glass buildings and Mannix-like computer mainframes are made strange by recontextualization and weird outer space music and effects. Wire is a world of fragmentation paintings on walls, glass surfaces through which Fassbinder continually shoots his subjects (a habit Todd Haynes picked up), and long takes that follow people talking. The plot is easy to follow; Fassbinder simply wanted it to be a bore, maybe because he resented having to make the thing, or because that's how he viewed the future. The essential normality of what is said and done is undermined by Warhol-esque, Antonioni-staged parties where people don't circulate but pose, staring off at nothing. It's a world where people exist to be looked at. It may be that the only aspect of the film that really interested Fassbinder was the tension between the questing Stiller and his boss, Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgereau), a smooth domineering industrialist, always in control. Fassbinder was fascinated by such power relationships and it is not always to his credit that he often "took the side" of the figure with the upper hand.
World on a Wire has been difficult to see since its initial airing, but the R. W. Fassbinder Foundation has prepared the film for release this year, and it will be released by the Criterion Collection.
World on a Wire plays at the Northwest Film Center Friday through Monday, September 23 - 26, 2001.
1. Also in the film is Ulli Lommel, who went on to make a Fassbinder-sized string of direct-to-video horror films.