In the second part of WORLD ON A WIRE, Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) finds that an ‘identity unit’ called Einstein is the contact person a between his world and the computer program. But it then occurs to him that his own world might itself be a computer program. Is he smoking a cigarette or someone’s idea of a cigarette? Is the coffee he’s drinking brown or has it been programmed to be brown and is really purple? Moreover, someone now has financial skin in the game, the program is not just being used for scientific purposes but also for commercial ones. As soon as he suspects he too might be someone else’s construct, an identity unit like those he’s programmed and overseen, the show takes on the form of the conspiracy thrillers then so in vogue (THE PARALLAX VIEW, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE CONVERSATION). Is Fred mad or does someone want to kill him because of what he knows. He keeps getting headaches, losing consciousness; is someone out to erase him?
Michael Ballhaus, who so dazzingly filmed this, was executive producer along with Roland Emmerich, of THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR (Josef Rusnak, 1999) an American adaptation of the novel that is also WORLD ON A WIRE’S source material, SIMULACRON-3 by Daniel F. Galoueye. Rusnak’s is a handsome, expensive looking film, but it gets nowhere near the philosophical complexity, social critique or the dazzling play with form that we get in WORLD ON A WIRE. It has some attractive and skilled actors (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio), a loud score, quick editing, a focus on the individual; an easy nostalgia for the past (the constructed world is 1937 Los Angeles) and a rather naïve optimism about the future. The group, a sense of collective, of politics, of competing economic forces, none of this is to be found in what can feel like an overly individualistic quasi monadic exercise; pretty and banal.
There are so many things I love about this second part of WORLD ON A WIRE: the carnality of what are meant to be identity units. Lowitsch is constantly filmed with his shirt off, his sexual potency winked at through a play of mirrors and statues in the mise-en-scène(see above).
And I love Barbara Valentin as the ur-blowsy bruised blond, madly in love with someone who doesn’t deserve her but happy to play around; she knows the ways of the world all too well but doesn’t quite seem to be fully in it (see above).
I love how the figure of Marlene Dietrich is deployed to bring up ideas of spectres and simulations and how that’s tied to power (see above). There’s a clear sense here that computer programmers begin to think themselves as God, can too easily get to love totalitarian power, and have no moral compass about the effects of their decision on others – something entirely lacking in the THIRTEENTH FLOOR.
I love also the extraordinary long take with Fred on the run (see above), where we see Klaus Löwitsch do extraordinary physical feats jumping through fences, but unlike with someone like Burt Lancaster who does it with such grace, power and ease, here you also see the effort it costs: Fred is tired, he’s fit but these feats cost; and he might not make it.
And always the queerness seeps through; in the filming of Lōwitsch, the use of Marlene, the scenes set in the nightclub with the musclemen cooks, and the grotesque men who appear with bright lipstick like something out of a painting by George Grosz or Otto Dix.
I love Kurt Raab’s design (see the extraordinary take above), which seems to be made of cling film and aluminum foil, shiny, reflective but not quite real, flimsy and on the verge of disintegrating. I love the use of Eddie Constantine (see below), part of what the show tries to achieve by using old movie stars with strong personas to indicate a constructed world, and partly also a nod to ALPHAVILLE.
There are some dazzling 360 degree long takes, and quite astonishing images with guns and mirror, distorted multiple reflections, always expressing a feeling and a point-of-view on the world it’s filming (see a mere sampling, below).
Made on a tight budget, for television, an appreciation of its achievements – intellectual, political, aesthetic, as a viewing experience only grows when comparing it to what was remade in THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR. I’s influence on THE MATRIX now seems unquestionable.