April 20, 2010


A heady piece of sci-fi from German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the long-forgotten World On A Wire (1973) resurfaced at the Museum of Modern Art last week for a short run. Produced for the German national television channel, NDR, it was adapted from the novel SIMULACRON 3, by the American Daniel F. Galouye (which was also the basis for The Thirteenth Floor (1999)). Restored in a shimmering print by The Fassbinder Foundation, it’s a visually kaleidoscopic oddity peppered with the director’s uniquely deadpan sense of humor.

The Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology has initiated the Simulacron project, who are building up an artificial universe on their computers, endowing consciousness to individual “identity units”, programmed by the researchers. It is intended to be used as a predictive device, running simulations about shifts in the economy and society. But when technical director Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) starts noticing fissures in his own reality, he begins to wonder if he is not an “identity unit” for yet another world above his own.  Or, as Fassbinder himself put it, quoted on the Foundation’s site:

“There is a very beautiful story named World on a Wire. It talks about a world where you can create projections of people with a computer. And this brings about the question to what degree we are all merely projections, because according to this thought model, the projections are equal to reality. Maybe another, larger body has created us as a thought model? We are looking at an old philosophical model that produces a certain horror. With this movie I have attempted to work as perfectly and orderly as possible, using all available technical means.”

A two-part, 205 minute opus, it has plenty of lag in its stop-start narrative – but Kurt Raab’s set design and Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography makes every shot worth examining like a jeweler. As you can see in the stills, it’s a fantasia of gleaming plastics and endless refractions. Ballhaus has a penchant for placing objects in the extreme foreground with some surreal action in the far background. This shot, seen in the top photo (and to the right), establishes the world as unbalanced and strange. The normal sense of scale is thrown off, confused.

Ballhaus also places mirror-like objects in every possible composition, bisecting the frame into worlds of illusion and reality. Early on, the original technical director, Professor Vollmer, harangues a state official by shoving a hand mirror in his face and asking him what is inside. Vollmer’s mental breakdown is the tremor which sets Stiller’s world on edge.

Fassbinder frames Stiller’s investigation as a kind of existential film noir. Lowitsch is a squat fireplug of an actor, very brute and athletic for a high profile scientist. Fassbinder loves playing with and honoring genre, and Stiller’s insolent personality and blunt humor recalls both Bogart and the American animals of Sam Fuller. Vollmer’s mysterious daughter Eva (Mascha Robben) takes on the role of femme fatale, with nods to Marlene Dietrich. In a nightclub sequence early on, a Dietrich impersonator lip-synchs to “Boys in the Back Room” before re-enacting the finale to Dishonored (checking her lipstick on a saber before falling to the firing squad). Robben’s veils and breathly line readings are other oblique references to the Berlin-born star.

There’s an air of burlesque to the whole enterprise, with Fassbinder’s usual array of intense grotesques, highlighted by the scrunched mien of Gottfried John as the only “identity unit” aware of his origins. There are also cameos from Ingrid Caven as a stylish newspaper girl, recently deceased director Werner Schroeter as a callow lad at a bar, and Eddie Constantine (Alphaville), as a flummoxed gent who picks up a hitchhiking Stiller. These bits of self-reflexive japery, along with some surreal comic sequences, give the film a wild, lurching tone. At its core it’s still hard sci-fi, tackling questions of alternate worlds and the ultimate meaning of consciousness, but it’s done in the rambunctious, conglomerate style of Fassbinder – who tosses in everything he loves. His favorite friends, colleagues, genres and faces congeal into a carnivalesque vision of computerized mania.

It anticipates the alternate-world philosophical noodlings of The Matrix by 25 years, and, as J. Hoberman notes in his review, is an avatar of Avatar, as Stiller is able to enter Simulacron by putting on the helmet seen a few paragraphs above. The film’s run at MoMA ended yesterday, and it’s currently only available on a German DVD without English subtitles, but the Foundation’s website says they are “presently negotiating with our partner Criterion in the USA.” So hopefully within a year or two this forgotten curiosity will have an extended, idiosyncratic life of its own in the United States.