Rescued from the archives, 'World on a Wire' offers a unique 1973 angle of the future.

Fassbinder's Funky Futurism Speaks to the Moment

Dennis Harvey July 26, 2011

This story appeared originally in April, 2011, when the film premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Demon of productivity that he was, Rainer Werner Fassbinder made an extraordinary 41 features—including several lengthy TV miniseries—in 13 years between 1969 and 1982. (Let's not even get started on his theatrical labors.)

Of course he was also a demon in other regards, famously mind-altered, arbitrary and unremitting in dealing with a “core company” of actors and crew he kept (or sometimes exiled) as co-dependent slaves to his Machiavellian behind-the-scenes psychodramas. Before his body simply gave out at age 37, he'd amassed an extraordinary body of work, much of which remains obscure. This despite late international arthouse fame from the likes of The Marriage of Maria Braun (a worldwide success in 1979) and 1982's Genet-derived Querelle (largely dismissed then, now a classic of screen gay eroticism).

Fassbinder did it all: Highly theatrical pieces (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), Europudding gestures toward genre thrills (Chinese Roulette), poignantly naturalistic social criticism (Fear Eats the Soul: Ali), blackest comedy (Satan's Brew), outrageous satire (Whity, a parodic “Mandingo” melodrama so loathed at its Berlin International premiere that it virtually disappeared for 35 years), naked self-excoriations (Beware the Holy Ghost), period epics (Effi Briest) and more.

That checklist doesn't even include the analyses of pre/post/during Nazi Germany (Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss) that secured his Braun-won exportable arthouse rep. Let alone the pure inspirational eccentricity of his early ’70s works, some made for German television. Ach, Deutschland: Will your liberal funding (at least in the past) for avant-garde projects never cease to amaze?

Thus we get to 1973's World on a Wire (opening at the Roxie July 29),  a major rediscovery that played in this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. No modest find, it's a 204-minute baroque sci-fi fantasia originally broadcast on West German TV, then forgotten for nearly four decades. Recently restored to 35mm glory, it's made the festival rounds to acclaim and some bemusement. As more than one latterday spectator has observed, this project is so Seventies. And so very, very Fassbinder.

Based on the 1964 novel Simulacron III by New Orleans genre specialist Daniel F. Galouye, which was later remade as 1999's US-German theatrical feature The 13th Floor, World on a Wire is a Borges-like labyrinth of conspiratorial whateverness that's sometimes slow or hard to follow, yet rendered endlessly fascinating by force of overpowering cinematic style.

This “electronic fairytale” is best taken as a quaalude-era memento of sleek surfaces and sensorially blurred meanings, with subsequently famed director of photography Michael Ballhaus' camera tracking epically or indulging 360-degree turns when not laying on the zoom lens or simply capturing performers in the hyper-artificial, retro-glamorous poses their director often favored.

Our protagonist Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) is a leading scientist at the Cybernetics Institute. Perhaps more importantly, he's also a hard-boiled, hard-living detective man's man in a paranoid thriller whose 1940s-nostalgic-futurism anticipates Blade Runner. (Even as the story's larger ideas anticipate The Matrix.) Forced to play detective, his personal “investigation” commences when a colleague on the brink of a “shattering discovery” suffers a suspicious “accidental” death.

He's promoted to the dead man's position as Technical Director in a company whose major advance to date has been the Simulacron, which allows people (wearing motorcycle/astronaut helmets) to vicariously experience the “realities” of myriad minutely detailed fictional characters. But rumors of grave ethical breaches and possible corporate malfeasance swirl around the Institute, putting Stiller on the hot seat as its public defender even as he privately probes the circumstances around his friend's demise.

That latter pursuit puts him on a collision course with umpteen creepy controllers, hired thugs, and alluring, heavily painted, ornately hairdo'd femmes fatale who all seem to know more than he does. They're are played by a stellar ensemble of Fassbinder regulars including Barbara Valentin, Ulli Lommel, Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Ivan Desny and Ingrid Caven, not to mention cameos by Eddie Constantine and Fassbinder himself. (No Hanna Schygulla, alas.)

Suffice it to say that Stiller discovers things aren't at all what they seem—think The Matrix—and experiences increasing peril for that discovery.

World on a Wire
is sci-fi of the thinkiest kind. It's mostly a series of conversations (albeit arrestingly staged/acted ones) with virtually no FX and little conventional “action,” although athletic lead Lowitsch does his share of running around with or without benefit of shirt. There's room here for a “topless” nightclub sequence in which the female dancers are white, the men black bodybuilders; for a famous Marlene Dietrich number's cabaret reprise; and for prolonged discussion of Plato's teachings.

All this tossed-salad weirdness, diverting by itself, does wend toward a conclusion of terrible, existential poignancy—and continued ambiguity.