The men who knew too much.
If I ever wanted to feel horrible about myself all I’d need to do is to remember Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The man made 40 feature films before he tragically passed away at the age of 37. But the really astonishing part is that most of these films are actually quite good. In fact, from only the dozen or so films of his that I have seen, I couldn’t call out a single one and say that it’s a bad film. He obviously worked at an incredible pace, for instance in 1973 he directed four films including the classic “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and this film, “World on a Wire”, which is Fassbinder’s take on the science fiction genre.
“World on a Wire” is a two part TV production Fassbinder did for the WDR, a public broadcasting service in Germany, and is probably his biggest production after “Berlin Alexanderplatz”; which is widely considered his magnum opus. And at first glance it’s the film that stands out in his filmography, considering that Fassbinder is mostly known for his small, minimalistic and contemporary dramas. But it’s undoubtedly a Fassbinder film, both in visual presentation and thematic content.
The cinematography by the great Michael Ballhaus and the camera-work is light on it’s feet as it ever was in a Fassbinder film. The roles are distributed largely to his regular cast of players. And the dedication to realism in his other films is broken down here and put under the question directly in the film itself. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now.
The story kicks off with the death of Dr. Henry Vollmer who was a scientist at the Cybernetics Institute and responsible for Simulacron; a supercomputer that simulates an alternate world and 1000 artificial “identity units” within it. These identity units are basically artificial people and they are unaware of the fact that they are not real and that they are inside a simulated word.
When his successor at the institute (and our protagonist), Fred Stiller, starts investigating the circumstances of Dr. Vollmer’s suspicious death he gets pulled in to a net of intrigue and paranoia that ultimately leads him to question his own reality.
This questioning of reality is always supported in the film’s great production design. Practically every shot is filled with mirrors and other reflective surfaces that reflect the actors, visually representing the question of what is real and what is not. Some of these surfaces, like uneven mirrors and glass bowls, completely distort the image of the world and the characters further contributing to this visual system.
Ultimately this brain tease is what makes “World on a Wire” so enticing. Sure, it’s a bit hard not to notice all the elements that “The Matrix” openly lifts from this film (even a proto version of “bullet-time” can be found within), but that does not get in the way of enjoying the cerebral workout it provides.
Even further than that, the film is loaded with paranoid suspense and existential and moral intricacies that few other films can match, let alone surpass.
Original title: Welt am Draht
Klaus Lowitsch - Fred Stiller
Marscha Rabben - Eva Vollmer
Barbara Valentin - Gloria Fromm
Karl-Heinz Vosgerau - Herbert Siskins
Gunter Lamprecht - Fritz Walfang
Original language: German
World on a Wire on IMDb