Fassbinder continues to astound, this time essaying science fiction, for television, in a two-parter, each of feature length. What is the world? What is the self? What is real? How do we know? The world of WORLD ON A WIRE is one of simulation and simulacra dramatised a decade before Baudrillard published his book philosophising the concepts. Ideas and situations from WORLD ON A WIRE can be seen in later films like BLADE RUNNER (Ridley Scott, 1982), TOTAL RECALL (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), STRANGE DAYS (Katherine Bigelow, 1995), DARK CITY (Alex Proyas, 1998) and the MATRIX films, amongst many others.
Creating a sci-fi world
Set in the near future, the action revolves around the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science’s supercomputer, here called the Simulacrum, which hosts a simulation of a world with over 9,000 ‘identity units’, who live as human beings unaware that they and their world are just computer code, a world on a wire. Government, industry, and lobbying groups are in cahoots to use whatever findings they discover from the identity units in that world, indistinguishable from humans, so they can sell more stuff, foretell or rig elections results, etc.
Beautiful design by Kurt Raab, and always with a queer element
As the action begins, Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), the technical director of the program, has made a new discovery that would mean ‘the end of this world’ should it get out. He dies soon after in mysterious circumstances. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), the Professor’s replacement has a discussion with Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the head of security, about what happened but Lause seems to disappear before his very eyes. Moreover, when Stiller asks others about Lause, no one seems to know of him: he seems to have been erased from the world. Stiller seeks answers by donning an electronic cap that permits him to travel within the simulacra as an ‘identity unit’ where he sees the Lause that non one in his world now seems to know talking to a mysterious figure, Einstein (Gottfried John), who seems to be able to simulate identity across various simulacra. Could it be that Stiller himself is an identity unit and that his world is simply a different level of simulacra?
Sinewy Tracking shots
Fassbinder and cinematographer Micahel Ballhaus use the modernist banlieus and shopping centres then being built outside Paris as a setting. They film in sinewy tracks and dollies, some thrillingly barely an inch above the floor, using mirrors or through windows and glass to create a sense of doubling and doubt, of estrangement. Indeed the first image in the film is shot slightly out of focus with a wobbly quality to indicate that the world is unstable and might dissolve into code at any moment.
A world of screens
This feeling of estrangement is also added to by the cast, Fassbinder’s usual repertory (Margit Cartesen, Wolfgang Schenk, Ulli Lomel, Ingrid Caven, El Hedi ben Salem) here deliberately enacting the kind of stiffness they were often accused of, but also in the casting of old movie stars from another era (Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny, Elma Karlowa) bringing their personas and what they represented into this futuristic pastiche of past, present, and future; of the world being the same but different, now peopled by strange mythic creatures from other eras and thus slightly fantastic and unreal; something also added to by evoking powerful moments of historical memory in new contexts (here a Marlene impersonator, using her voice, in a nightclub setting, singing ‘See What The Boys in The Backroom Will Have’. A thrilling and surprising work, very beautiful to look at, with gorgeous design by Kurt Raab and and unsettling electronic score from Gottfried Hüngsberg. I’m eager for the second part.