Thursday, July 30, 2015

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

Pure imagination

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973, from Daniel F. Galouye's novel Simulacron-3), done before he succeeded internationally with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was--after a TV premiere and a few theatrical screenings--unavailable for the longest time. It was resurrected thirty-seven years later by the 60th Berlin Film Festival  before being released on Region 2 DVD, then on the Criterion label two years after that. 

Along with its many dislocations the film--as if stored in a vault, or catapulted by time machine some forty years into the future--gives us a glimpse of how the '70s viewed virtual reality, artificial intelligences, the digital age, all hazily distant concepts at the time. In some ways their ideas were wrongheaded, laughably caught up in their own fixations (nothing exposes a decade better than its notions of the future); in others they were remarkably on target, even disturbingly prescient about trends still developing today. 

The film begins with the death of one Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), technical director of supercomputer Simulacron 3, who before his passing confesses to Head of Security Gunther Lause (Ivan Desny) that he knows something Lause doesn't--and what he knows may destroy the world. Lause himself soon disappears without leaving evidence of having ever existed; the only one who remembers is Vollmer's colleague and successor, Dr. Fred Stiller (Klause Lowitch). 

The rest is a long involved plot about how Simulacron's presiding organization IKZ (the Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung, or Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology) is helping United Steel forecast market trends, how the 'identity units' (simulated human beings inhabiting Simulacron's virtual universe) seem to be defying their programming, and how Dr. Stiller's own hold on sanity is slipping like his predecessor's before him. As an industrial espionage thriller the film isn't all that--leisurely paced with odd rhythms, acting that seems stilted if not downright robotic, a story that constantly detours into bizarre digressions.*

*(How odd--or reasonable--is it that both Godard and Fassbinder believed the future would look like Paris of their day ('60s and '70s respectively), and would a filmmaker of perception and intelligence think similarly today? And how odd or reasonable is it that Fassbinder would pay tribute to Godard's Alphaville by having Eddie Constantine at one point pick up Stiller in an automobile (a chauffered limousine, as opposed to Lemmy Caution's self-driven Ford Galaxie--Caution has come up in the world))
To winkle out the director's real subject all you really have to do is look at the film itself: Fassbinder presents a reflective, refractive world, all glittering textiles and gleaming chrome and wall-sized windows and flickering video screens; when two people talk he has them face each another, aims the lens at one person, angles a mirror to capture the expression of the other. Often used by Douglas Sirk (one of Fassbinder's idols), the set-up gives us both faces as they react to each other without resorting to dreary shot/reverse shot editing; overused here to almost distracting effect (Fassbinder would be more judicious in his succeeding pictures), the device adds yet another array of reflective surfaces to an already shimmering work. You feel as if you're surrounded by mirages and illusions and artificial images; you feel as if you're suspended inches above a motionless pond, ready at any moment to plunge through the film separating realities into a whole other world. 

Then there's the scene where Vollmer confesses to Lauer: the two sit opposite each other and Fassbinder's camera suddenly pulls away--from the glass partitions and shuttered windows and mirrored pedestals surrounding--as if the director was trying to describe the boundaries, the limits of this world; as if he were trying to suggest some hidden something about the world, without uttering an explicit word.

It's a secret (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) finally revealed at the end of part 1 (the three-hour film was first broadcast in two segments): that just as Simulacron contains an electronic model of the real world inhabited by ten thousand 'identity units,' the reality Stiller inhabits is itself a simulation, created by a larger even more mysterious world. Not perhaps the most jawdropping of revelations: if you've seen everything from Videodrome to Existenz to The Thirteenth Floor (a 1999 adaptation of Simulacron 3 executive-produced by World on a Wire's cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) or read Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (possibly the earliest example of this kind of mindbending, if you don't include MGM's The Wizard of Oz) you pretty much know the twist from Vollmer's death onwards

But Fassbinder's a stubborn young cuss (he was twenty-seven when he did this) who leaves few clues much less actual explanations for the incongruities scattered throughout his film: the way bit players and extras seem to stand in statuesque stasis while the main characters recite their lines and elevator muzak tinkles away in the background; the way someone will intrude, make a vivid impression (the cafe waitress who insists on knowing who ordered the cheesecake; the diver pulling himself by gymnast rings out of a pool; the beautiful woman who presents herself without preamble or apology to Stiller (she's told he's in the phone book)), then disappear. The attempt on Stiller's life (involving a load of rubble suspended in mid-air and a lady with a lighter); the dog; Lauer's disappearance; and so on. 

The midstory reveal neatly squares away all the little mysteries, though Fassbinder doesn't bother to include a scene where the characters pause to explain how they're resolved; the latter half focuses on the ramifications of the newer larger mystery (again, for would-be viewers: skip the rest of this paragraph!): what's the outside world like? Do people here have real-life analogues, and what are they like? Who's the link between worlds, and what does he/she know, is capable of doing? Fassbinder drops intriguing hints: Stiller's doppelganger is possibly a megalomaniac (and even in this world you see Stiller's drive to become the hero of his own action flick), the link to the outside may be more than a mere link, the greater world not much different from the world we already see. Is the last detail disappointing? But that's Fassbinder; even he must have realized he can't improve on the joke that ended Dorothy's quest--that after all she's suffered and experienced and enjoyed in technicolor Oz, she's back in black-and-white Kansas again.

A breathtakingly bizarre film, Fassbinder's one foray into the genre and I submit, the one picture where his eccentricities both visual and dramatic work well with the conventions of the genre. One of the greatest science fiction--no, speculative fiction (Fassbinder deserves the upgrade)--films ever made. 

First published in Businessworld, 6.18.15

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