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Fassbinder's World on a Wire: the missing link between A Clockwork Orange and Inception

The Matrix Preloaded



World on a Wire, a recently restored two-part miniseries by the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is what we like to call a can't-miss affair. Even if you don't think you have nearly four hours to devote to a foreign repertory film from the 1970s, you should definitely make room for this one in your schedule. Not only does it fly by — its pacing is more televisual than cinematic in many respects — as you become more and more absorbed by its plot mechanics and unique patterns of paranoia, it also is a film that feels somehow inevitable in your viewing, a missing link that should have been there all along.

An adaptation of the novel Simulacron 3 by New Orleans sci-fi writer Daniel Galouye, World on a Wire is a techno-procedural following the plight of cyber-scientist Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) as he discovers that his project — a self-sufficient, artificial computer universe, devised for market forecasting — may hold far more sinister ramifications than those around him are willing to acknowledge. Bottom line: In 1973, Fassbinder had already drawn the blueprint for Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception, and many other films besides. He got there first, did it better — and did it much, much weirder.

It's exceedingly rare for a masterwork to simply fall through the cracks, only to be discovered decades later. For this scenario to occur with an artist of great renown, rarer still. But Fassbinder is something of a special case. For one thing, during his relatively brief feature filmmaking career (13 years), he was insanely prolific. He managed to make no less than 39 films during this period, one of which is the 15½-hour TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, which for this purpose I'm only counting as one.

So, on average, Fassbinder made exactly three feature films a year. (In 1975, he actually made four.) What's more, depending on relative arguments of taste and general periodization, there are really only three or four of them that scholars or critics have argued are bad. In fact, Fassbinder's final film, 1982's Jean Genet adaptation Querelle, is his only consensus dud, and even it has vociferous defenders.

How did Fassbinder do this? Well, there are numerous theories, including those put forward by Fassbinder himself. He often half-jokingly trumpeted the glories of cocaine, and he undoubtedly lived hard and died young accordingly. (He died in 1982 at the age of 37.) But even more than most hardcore art-film practitioners, Fassbinder surrounded himself with a coterie of performers, technicians and collaborators who were fiercely devoted to his vision.

This has been a subject of controversy. Some former members have decried a drug-fueled Fassbinder "cult," while others (particularly those who had successful post-Fassbinder careers, such as actress Hanna Schygulla, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and musician Peer Raben) have defended the director as having been temperamental and driven, but no Svengali. In the end, Fassbinder and his company may have represented a rare but undeniable symbiosis — that of a charismatic artist able to channel his passions through the activity of others.

Much of Fassbinder's legacy results from his work's penetrating insight into the social and political turmoil of his times (the turbulent Western European 1970s). His films from the period capture that volatility, but without much of the stridency that would instantly date them as artifacts. Fassbinder had the capability to communicate that strife through images simultaneously electric and dispassionate, on the verge of explosion but forever held back.

It is this attitude of seething menace that saturates World. Fassbinder's two-part telefilm, after having been mostly ignored for decades, was restored and re-released by the Fassbinder Foundation last year. Although there is nothing explicitly political in this film, one can certainly detect hints of Europe's fragile Zeitgeist in the all-pervasive mood of paranoia, double-dealing, and perhaps most importantly the ideology (which Stiller bucks against) that capitalist accumulation and the public good are one and the same. The West German "Economic Miracle," a revitalization that for many leftist intellectuals reflected a national unwillingness to atone for the Nazi past, was part of the crucible that gave us the Red Army Faction (aka "the Baader-Meinhof Group"), Italy's Red Brigades, and Carlos the Jackal. Overcoming the society's domination by technocrats, like those seen in World on a Wire, was always a key element of this radical left's utopian agenda.

So do not mistake this belated release for some Beatles / Tupac barrel-scrape. In fact, World may stand as one of the German master's five or so greatest overall achievements. World is Fassbinder's only science-fiction riff, and when you acclimate yourself to its rhythms (which takes all of 10 minutes; this "art film" is compulsively watchable), you realize just how much more he could have brought to the genre. (Especially if you see the other movie made from Galouye's book, the Roland Emmerich-produced The Thirteenth Floor.) The funky angles, distorted lines of vision, and multiple, fragmented mirror reflections that so often characterize Fassbinder's visual style are here combined with mod, retro-future fashions and home furnishings to convey a Germany just slightly ahead of our (or his) own time. Kubrick is an obvious influence here, with shades of Clockwork Orange and 2001, but Fassbinder adopts nothing so aggressive as the former or as antiseptic as the latter.

Another key reference for World on a Wire is Jean-Luc Godard's own lone foray into sci-fi, 1965's Alphaville. Much like Godard's film, World generates a futurescape from the present mostly by judicious selection. Abandoned building sites, freeways and glass skyscrapers, it seems, are forever. (In the final moments of World, Fassbinder completes the homage as Alphaville's star, Eddie Constantine, makes a cameo appearance.)

But much of World's faux-futurity just comes from costuming, offbeat performances and attitude. A character like Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin), the duplicitous secretary/sex bomb, exemplifies this. She's an old-school vamp with an uncanny sadness and just the slightest hint of drag-queen exaggeration, nudging her generic sex appeal into the realm of the baffling. Likewise, Simulacron's big boss, Mr. Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau) constantly sports the puffed-out sideburns and garish plaid blazer of WKRP's Herb Tarlek. And yet, instead of seeming utterly ridiculous, Siskins totters right on the edge of inscrutability, like a malevolent game show host.

In time, we, much like Fred Stiller himself, develop a tense double consciousness while watching World on a Wire. We can either interpret this semi-futuristic terrarium Fassbinder has forged as appropriately "off" because, as per the film's plot, it may be a computer simulation of real existence — a high-tech Plato's Cave, with shadow men and women groping for the sunlight of Truth. Or we can fully immerse ourselves in World on a Wire's taut, uncertain, multileveled existence, taking full pleasure in its existential dilemmas since they are (presumably) not ours. For those of us on the outside, Fassbinder himself is the only puppetmaster, and he has long since left the building.


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