It’s funny: the two RWF movies I’ve dreaded watching the most, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and World on a Wire, turn out to be my favorites so far. But if I dreaded the first movie, it’s largely because of what I actually remembered about it (suffocating masochism in a single interior space, anyone?). My fears about World on a Wire, on the other hand, were based solely on assumptions, sheer conjecture. You can understand my apprehension: a science fiction movie made for television in Germany in 1973 lasting over three hours? Visions of Tarkovsky—to whose work I feel a genuine aversion, having fallen asleep in both Solaris and Stalker. (And, yeah, I do know how incredibly uncool an admission that is). Come to think of it, I also fell asleep in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe I just don’t like science fiction?
World on a Wire was a genuine surprise. It works. It’s really engaging as a genre movie and it holds its own as cinematographic art. Fritz Müller-Scherz’s script, adapted from a novel by Daniel Goulaye, is tight. The cinematography is stunning (Michael Ballhaus, natürlich), enhanced by the 2010 restoration available on Blu-Ray from Criterion. The art direction, partly by Herr R himself (Kurt Raab!), is just fabulous. It’s a gorgeous movie.
In a nonspecific future (which is really the present) the IKZ Institute is finalizing a project called Simulacron, whose purpose is to create a computer-generated world inhabited by computer-generated people, “identity modules” whose behavior patterns can be accelerated and studied, permitting governments and conglomerates to predict actual consumer behavior in the future and so make hugely profitable investments in the present. When the project’s lead scientist, Vollmer, mysteriously drops dead after suffering a sort of breakdown, his second in command, Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), is promoted to technical director. This is a big promotion for Stiller and he is proud of it.
Things are not as they should be at IKZ, however, and Stiller grows increasingly uneasy. The circumstances of Vollmer’s death are murky, confounded by the sudden disappearance of the head of security, Gunther Lause (Ivan Desny), from a crowded party at the home of the director of the institute, Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau), right before Lause was about to disclose something really important to Stiller about Vollmer’s death and about Simulacron. Stiller files a police report, but suddenly nobody has ever even heard of Gunther Lause, as though he never existed. Stiller’s trajectory begins to mirror Vollmer’s as he realizes just how far the Simulacron project has advanced and how enmeshed in its multiple realities—the boundaries between which he can no longer distinguish—he really is. Who can he trust? Who and what is even real? The periodic pounding in his head, which Vollmer complained of before collapsing, grows, as does the high-pitched electronic screeching that accompanies it.
World on a Wire clearly predicts The Matrix, to which it is frequently compared. Both depict virtual realities that seem more real than real—to the point where viewer and protagonist alike are forced to question the nature of reality itself—and both invoke philosophical conundra about the role of perception and notions of the real. (World on a Wire directly references both Zeno’s Paradox and Plato’s cave.) Whereas The Matrix relies on CGI and state-of-the-art effects to accomplish this, however, RWF creates and sustains coherent virtual world(s) with . . . lenses. And sound effects. For me, the low-tech nature of the effects in this movie actually make it more powerful and more engaging. Not to mention the philosophical questions the film poses, which are orders of magnitude more cogent and compelling than anything the Wachowskis have come up with.
In many ways, the more apt comparison here is with Alphaville. (Eddie Constantine, Alphaville’s Lemmy Caution, even has a small role in World on a Wire.) Like Godard before him, RWF uses the landscape and architecture and imagery of contemporary Paris to depict a future dystopia, which is alienating precisely because it is familiar. There are no silver bodysuits, no robot sidekicks, no spaceships. Just lonely International-style highrises looming in a barren landscape, 1970s-modern furniture you could find at any Design Research store (anyone else remember DR? I’m dating myself, I know), lots of bright-colored plastic, mirrors, computer banks, TVs. That future we all fear? It’s already here.
At the same time the world(s) depicted in World on a Wire are outside time. There is a wonderful scrambling of styles that suggests a mix-up of eras. When Stiller has himself projected down into the world of Simulacron, for example, the dominant style of the décor and fashion is from the 1930s. Eva Vollmer (Mascha Rabben, in a role originally offered to Hanna Schygulla), Stiller’s former boss’s elusive and mysterious daughter, dresses like a femme fatale straight out of Chandler. A Dietrich impersonator performs at Siskins’ party. “Lili Marleen” accompanies a film of jackbooted Nazi era troops on stage at the Alcazar where Stiller flees later in the film. Simulacron, in other words, is outside time. But there’s more to it: the simulated world(s) of Simulacron evoke not the world of contemporary Germany, but imagery most viewers will have remembered from the movies. I think they also suggest historical memories repressed and largely erased from the collective memory in Germany after the war. This is no coincidence. Erased or deleted memory is a central theme in World on a Wire.
As far as I know, World on a Wire was RWF’s only foray into the realm of science fiction. Somewhat paradoxically, this futuristic tale evokes the 1970s more strongly than any of his films that were actually set in contemporary Munich. Watching it I felt a real sense of nostalgia. This may seem counterintuitive. But there is an overt distancing effect in the contemporary stories that renders them sort of timeless. I think you notice the way RWF rejects realism in the stories of quotidian life—films like Katzelmacher or Why Does Herr R Run Amok or The Merchant of Four Seasons—more than you do in World on a Wire, set as it is in a world not quite like our own. (To a certain extent I think we are conditioned—hardwired even—to expect a certain transparency, a certain familiarity, from stories that take place in the everyday world; we expect, if only unconsciously, to identify with the characters as everyday people. That’s how mimesis works. When a work doesn’t deliver the experience we expect, we take notice.)
But that doesn’t really explain the deep nostalgia for the 1970s World on a Wire provoked in me. How about this: A genre film carries with it certain conventions, which are hard to shake; they give the work a certain context. They are a product of culture, which is always specific. (Maybe that’s why I didn’t like Solaris: maybe Tarkovsky rejected so many genre conventions that I couldn’t make sense out of it?) By necessity, even visionary artists view imagined futures through the filter of their own place and time, through culture; moreover, they are bound to use the tools available to them in that place and time. So that the imagery—the plastic furniture, the screaming tangerine telephones, the computer screens, the architecture—as well as the cinematic “language”—the camerawork and the editing, in particular, but also the depth and resolution and contrast available with specific film stocks and optics—cannot but date the work, no matter how visionary the artist, no matter how innovative the techniques.* Which may simply be to say, World on a Wire looks and feels like a futuristic movie made in 1973.
Which is not to say that World on a Wire is not every bit as “alienating” as, say, Katzelmacher. According to the documentary included with disc 2 of the Criterion DVD—definitely worth watching, BTW, even if the central premise (RWF “predicted” virtual reality) seems a little lame—many of the actors cast in this film were famous German movie stars from an earlier generation whose heyday had passed. For the television audience of 1973 this added both a layer of familiarity and a degree of strangeness (what is he doing there?). Which actually mirrors Stiller’s own experience within the film. Ditto the use of simple optical tricks and motifs: the ubiquitous mirrors and glass tables fragment and reflect the characters and underscore the sense that they are merely images. Ballhaus describes how he achieved the effect of the opening shot of the film, in which the Secretary of State pulls up to IKZ headquarters: shot with a 250 mm lens so that space is collapsed and depth of field and focus practially nonexistent, he seems to recall that they may have also used a bunson burner below the lens to add a swirling effect and further undermine the solidity of the image. Reality is just a shimmering mirage in the distance.
I was eleven in 1973. I try to imagine what it must have been like for a kid my age to have turned on the television after dinner and seen World on a Wire instead of, say, McMillan and Wife or Police Woman. It must have been mind-blowing. This is what impresses me more and more about Fassbinder: as an artist he was a true egalitarian, a journeyman as well as an arthouse cult hero, who could transition from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to World on a Wire and see no contradiction between the two.
* Take the zoom, for example. Remember in the late ’60s and ’70s when everybody started using the zoom to convey emotions like sudden surprise or shock or anxiety? (I always think of the Italians in connection with this: Pasolini, Visconti, Lina Wertmuller . . . ) Today, the technique is cringe-worthy, it’s so out of fashion and dated. Why is that? Is there something inherently cheesy about the zoom? And if so, what? And if not, why did it go so completely extinct? This is a topic for another post entirely, but I doubt I’ll have time. In the meantime: let’s bring back the zoom and see where it takes us!