Tag Archives: Michael Ballhaus

WORLD ON A WIRE/ WELT AM DRAHT – Part II (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1973)


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.

José Arroyo



Martha (Rainer Warner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1974)

MARTHA is Fassbinder in full Sirk mode, developing the 1940s ‘woman’s film’ film to the brutal ends inherent in the material but usually more tactfully conveyed. Martha (Margit Cartensen) is a chic librarian from a bourgeois background but a close-up at the beginning lets us know everything is not quite right: she’s on Valium. What’s making her anxious? Is it that she’s still a virgin at thirty? That her friends are all married? That she loves her father too much?

She has high ideals of marriage and social proprieties and is a bit sniffy about sex. Yet the men around her treat her as she’s constantly up for it, sending up unwanted gigolos to her room in Rome, sticking their tongues out at her suggestively in parks. Mostly she doesn’t notice and acts as she’s above it all when she does. Yet, when she turns down a marriage proposal from her boss, he immediately asks someone else to marry him. Is she just a body and a function, easily replaceable?

Everything changes when her father dies of a heart attack in the Roman Steps in Rome. Her purse gets stolen and when she goes to the German Embassy she meets a man and they both have a coup de foudre. The camera does a 360 degree shot, where each of the characters in the frame also turn around completely, but in different directions, thus practically condensing the film into one shot.

They meet again at a wedding where Fassbinder turns a typical meet cute into an ominously sharp series of insults. The man is Helmut Salomon (Karlheinz Böhm), a well-to-do businessman who tells her she’s too thin and is not as beautiful nor as charming as she thinks. She loves it. They continue to see each other and he finally proposes after she’s been sick in an aerial amusement park ride. Her gratitude for the proposal is excessive. On their honeymoon he chides her for wearing sun-tan lotion so she doesn’t use it, gets completely burned up as a result, and we’re shown his relish at her pain as he squeezes every burn.

She’s married a sadist, doesn’t yet know it, rationalises each of his actions through romantic ideas of love, and is overly grateful for every crumb of affection.

Soon, he resigns her from the job she loved and, in full GASLIGHT mode, he’s convincing her of things that aren’t; he cuts her from her house and furniture, her mother, her friends and he even cuts off the telephone so she can be thinking only of him, appreciating the music he buys, and reading the technical tomes related to his work that he’d like to discuss with her. She puts up with all of this rationalising that it’s all proof of how much he loves her….until he kills her cat.

When Martha can stand it no longer she calls a friend but she’s in such hysterics to get away she clutches the steering wheel and causes an accident that leaves her friend dead and herself paralysed, sentenced to a lifetime of control by her sadistic husband. The iron door of a lift closing on her in a wheelchair and her husband towering over her in control of the chair and her life is an extraordinary ending.

Another extraordinary film from Fassbinder which partly gets its power from the precision of the mise-en-scene —  the use of décor and mirrors to signify, the way characters ominously appear at the end of sequences to signify another option – in combination with an in your face punk attitude about showing. Nothing is sugar-coated or watered down. Sirk and punk is a potent combination.

Michael Ballhaus was the dop and claims it’s his favourite of Fassbinder’s films.


José Arroyo




Thinking Aloud About Film: Beware of a Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1971)


I’ve been watching all the Fassbinder films I can get my hands on in chronological order and find this the culmination of his early works, a great film about filmmaking to rank alongside Minnelli’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (1962) Godard’s CONTEMPT (1963) or Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1973). Richard hasn’t seen a Fassbinder film for two decades and finds it harder to get into. We discuss the structure, the marvellous visual and dramatic handling of a very large cast, the gorgeous glossy look –surprising in Fassbinder films to this point — and snake-like long takes (Michael Ballhaus is the cinematographer), the psycho-sexual power dynamics in the narrative and we admire Hannah Schygulla. A main take-away from this conversation with Richard is how Fassbinder’s early work points to a type of cinema and a type of queer representation that the AIDS pandemic brought an end to and of which QUERELLE might be a nodal point. BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE is ostensibly based on Fassbinder’s experience of filming WHITY (1971) but it is a difficult film to see at this point and that aspect has largely been left out of the discussion.


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José Arroyo