Although Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed over forty films before his untimely drug-fuelled death in 1982, he only completed one sci-fi picture - 1973’s World on a Wire, which was originally broadcast on German TV (under its German title, Welt am Draht) - in two parts. He made the 200-minute feature in just forty four days, during a break in the shooting schedule for 1974’s Effi Briest, and recruited much of his regular cast and crew, including Klaus Löwitsch (familiar to Hollywood film fans from The Odessa File and Firefox), Salome’s Mascha Rabben, and “the German Jayne Mansfield”, Barbara Valentin.
Loosely based on Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3, World on a Wire is the story of Fred Stiller (Löwitsch), a scientist on a government-sponsored project to create a simulation of our world, complete with versions of real people, which could be studied to predict future trends and warn of societal ills. The lead scientist, Henry Vollmer (maniacally played by Adrian Hoven) discovers something which makes his mind unravel and he dies mysteriously, thrusting Stiller into the lead position on the project. Under pressure from the government and the sleazy boss of the Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung, can Stiller avoid the same fate as his predecessor?
With the opening minutes establishing the Simulacron - IFK’s term for its virtual world - as a mirror of our own reality, World on a Wire is full of reflective surfaces. They are everywhere, all over IFK’s laboratory and throughout the homes and offices of the principles, and distils a feeling that while nothing may be what it seems, everything is as it is seen. Stiller knows - lives - what is “real”, but how valuable is that in a world which creates its own veracity? In this, Fassbinder takes inspiration from - mirrors, perhaps - Douglas Sirk, the German filmmaker who had brief critically-appraised success in Hollywood in the 1950s and whose films used reflective surfaces to expose the seamy underbelly beneath America’s banal façade, reflecting the ugly truth and scandal back on a society that considered itself wholesome.
Löwitsch is an engaging lead, full of explosive passion and brooding confidence, and he is ably countered by Karl-Heinz Vosgerau as IFK head honcho Henry Siskins, while Rabben and Valentin, the twin love interests (although that’s maybe a stretch here), are both alluring and aloof, bringing a tense sensuality to their every encounter with Stiller. An odd delight is a genuinely creepy Kurt Raab, brought in to ensure Simulacron stays on its intended course - his perfectly spherical, hairless head will haunt your dreams forever.
Included on this Blu-ray release are a number of invaluable extras, including interviews with Fassbinder’s assistant director and an expert on computer simulations, a tribute to the director’s on-set photographer Peter Gauhe, and a pair of documentaries about the creation and impact of the movie. Additionally, the limited edition slipcase offers a 50-page book of essays on the importance of the movie to German and world cinema.
World on a Wire is both a challenging and rewarding film experience. A three-hour film in German, with English subtitles, is no easy watch, but it moves along at a pace, and the sheer artistry of the cinematography is every bit as important as the dialogue. As an artefact, it embodies that peculiar space and time when Hollywood - and obviously the German version of Hollywood - experimented in its mainstream, and sits proudly alongside such genre classics as Silent Running, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green, presciently projecting the issues of their present into a future when they’d be even more apparent. Masterworks can often be disappointing, especially those lost for so long to a wide audience (World on a Wire was largely commercially unavailable until a decade ago), but this isn’t one of them.
Special features: No Strings Attached - an interview with assistant director Renate Leiffer, Observing Fassbinder - a tribute to photographer Peter Gauhe, Looking Ahead To Today documentary, on-set featurette, original broadcast recap, The Simulation Argument - an interview with professor Nick Bostrom
WORLD ON A WIRE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER / SCREENPLAY: FRITZ MULLER-SCHERZ, RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER / STARRING: KLAUS LOWITSCH, BARBARA VALENTIN, MASCHA RABBEN / RELEASE DATE: 18TH FEBRUARY