Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fritz Müller-Scherz
Based on a Novel by: Daniel F. Galouye
Starring: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Ulli Lommel, Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny
Country: West Germany
Running Time: 204 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Until more recent years, working in TV was considered a step down to filmmakers. It offered a starting block for many, but once they got into the film business, directors (and actors) tended to shun the smaller screen, which was considered to offer lower quality output. The New German Cinema enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder had no qualms about working in television though. He continued to produce work for the platform after finding critical and commercial success with his films. The efficient working practices of TV probably suited his own fast pace of production. He’s well known for juggling multiple projects at any one time and produced a huge body of work, considering his short life (he died of an overdose aged only 37). Fassbinder also saw the potential of TV for telling lengthier narratives and reaching a wider audience, something the industry as a whole has realised and capitalised on over the last decade or two.
Fassbinder’s most famous TV production was the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, released in 1980, but prior to that he completed numerous TV movies and another two mini-series, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (which was released on Blu-Ray by Arrow a year or two ago) and World on a Wire (a.k.a. Welt am Draht), both finished in 1973. Second Sight, who brought out a superb Blu-Ray set of Berlin Alexanderplatz last year in the UK, have now focussed their attention to the less well-known World on a Wire, giving it the spit and polish treatment it deserves. I thought I’d take a look and my thoughts on the series follow.
World on a Wire is based on the novel ‘Simulacron-3′ by Daniel F. Galouye (which was once again adapted into a film as The Thirteenth Floor). In the present day, scientists have developed an artificial world inside a computer system where individual ‘identity units’ have been programmed who act like humans, unaware they’re actually just computer simulations.
The technical director of the program, Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), appears to have lost his mind and is later found dead, seemingly due to an accident in the server room. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) takes over as director and he soon starts to witness some strange occurrences, including the sudden disappearance of Günther Lause, the security adviser of the institute. The next day, everyone around him denies the fact Lause ever existed and this, among other unusual twists and turns, lead Stiller to wonder whether he’s actually a part of a simulation himself or if he’s simply going insane.
The idea of virtual reality had been explored in literature prior to this (including the 1964 novel on which this was based of course), but World on a Wire presents one of the earliest on-screen depictions of the concept. As such it’s a series/film (I’ll continue to call it a film as it doesn’t seem long or fractured enough to be considered a series) that feels well ahead of its time. Avoiding too many ‘futuristic’ gadgets or special effects, simply presenting the artificial world largely like our own, Fassbinder created a sci-fi film hasn’t aged much. Yes, the computers they’re using are huge and clunky and the screen displays we occasionally see are hardly 4K monitors, but remember this isn’t supposed to be set in the future. What still remains relevant are the ideas of identity and blurring the lines between reality and artifice. In fact these issues are more relevant than ever as people spend a huge proportion of their lives hooked to the digital realm and online identity and ‘truth’ is a huge issue.
Fassbinder’s unusual style of filmmaking can be a turn-off to some, with slightly stilted deadpan deliveries from his actors and an artificial sheen to the presentation as a whole. However, in the context of this story, this artifice is perfect in helping the protagonist and audience question whether or not we are in the ‘real’ or simulated world.
Speaking of style, the film belies its swiftly produced TV roots to deliver a visually arresting experience that puts most films of the time to shame. The modernistic production design, although a little dated, fits the setting and mood perfectly. The cinematography is simply stunning too, featuring plenty of movement, including a couple of incredible 360 degree rotations and regular use of reflective surfaces. There’s an effective use of electronic sounds/music too. Again it’s a little of its time and occasionally is used in a rather blunt manner, but it adds to the mood and provides some suitably intense backing to Stiller’s precarious mental state.
The actors, although performing in Fassbinder’s typically unusual style, mostly do a first rate job. Löwitsch is particularly good in the lead role. He’s largely stony-faced and hyper-masculine, but portrays his character’s edginess to a level that rubs off on the audience without lurching too far into over-the-top. He was reportedly an alcoholic and was drinking regularly during production, so it’s remarkable how well he performs.
Overall then, it’s an excellent sci-fi thriller with ideas still relevant today, if not more so. Directed and shot with great style too, it’s a superb piece of work and proof that cinema-quality TV is not solely a recent phenomenon.
World on a Wire is out on 18th February on Blu Ray in the UK, released by Second Sight. The picture is a little soft with a fairly heavy grain. However, the miniseries was shot on 16mm, so it’s never going to look sharp and the grain is as it looks on film. As such, it’s hard to complain about the picture. The soundtrack seems solid too.
Second Sight have assembled an impressive amount of special features and other physical extras to make up this package. The details are as follows:
– No Strings Attached – an interview with assistant director Renate Leiffer
– Observing Fassbinder a tribute to photographer Peter Gauhe
– Looking Ahead to Today documentary
– On-set featurette
– Original Broadcast Recap
– The Simulation Argument an interview with Professor Nick Bostrom
– Optional English subtitles
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
– Rigid slipcase packaging
– 50 page perfect-bound booklet featuring new essays by Anton Bitel and Daniel Bird and archival writing by Daniel Oberhaus and Christian Braad Thomsen
It’s a thoughtfully curated batch of features that covers a lot of ground. ‘Looking Ahead Today’ offers a fairly thorough overview of the production and the vintage on-set footage provides an authentic look back. The two interviews are interesting in choosing quite unusual contributors, and both have plenty of stories to tell about the controversial director. Most interesting perhaps though is the ‘Simulation Argument’ piece. It’s a wonderful idea to have a scientist/philosopher discuss the theories presented in the film. It can be a lot to get your head around, but is fascinating nonetheless.