World on a Wire
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World on a Wire is a gloriously paranoid, boundlessly inventive take on the future from German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun). With dashes of Stanley Kubrick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip K. Dick, as well as a flavor entirely his own, Fassbinder tells the noir-spiked tale of a reluctant action hero, Fred Stiller (The Odessa File’s Klaus Lowitsch), a cybernetics engineer who uncovers a massive corporate conspiracy. At risk? (Virtual) reality as we know it. Originally made for German television, this recently rediscovered, three-and-a-half-hour labyrinth is a satiric and surreal look at the weird world of tomorrow from one of cinema’s kinkiest geniuses.
Fassbinder's "World on a Wire": Looking Ahead to Today, a 50-min documentary
New interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gemunden
New English subtitles
Trailer for the 2010 theatrical release
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Ed Halter
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It was a little unnerving having to read English subtitles. Worse than that is this is a transliteration. The wording are juxtaposed and their inference is displayed and not a literal translation. It drove me crazy at first, as with the purposefully slow speech and very fundamental German you can pretty much keep up without the need of the subtitles with the exception of a word or two now and then as Käsekuchen (cheesecake.) they speak southern German which makes it much easier to follow.
Soon you get used to occasionally looking at the subtitles and can enjoy the movie as presented. It was made in 1973 but the people and cars and environment look 10 years older.
I was surprised to see the main character, Fred Stiller, played by Klaus Löwitsch of whom I recognized as Gustav Mackensen in “The ODESSA File” 1974 and Vlad (as Klaus Loewitsch) in “Gotcha!” 1985.
There is something strange in the neighborhood.
Günther Lauser (Chief of security at Cybernetics and Futurology) spoke of a “shattering discovery”, and then disappeared in the middle of a conversation. But he never existed in the minds of most people.
Watch the film and find out what is happening.
Even before the audience knows whats going on, Fassbinder is providing you with all the information you need to understand the situation. The minor characters all exibit blank stares, and appear oddly perfected in their clothing, make up and demenour in a way that's not fully human. Many dont blink. When not engaged with conversing with Stiller, they just stand there. This is true creativity, when the only special effect needed to show a person isnt real, is the acting. Also, the soundtrack drones in the backround constantly, usually trite 1930-1940s type movie composistions. Emotionally, the music is out of context with the lead character's situation, tho it helps immensely in providing a sense of falseness to the film. When the lead character discovers, or asks questions that fall outside the strange laws governing this odd world, the trite classical soundtrack becomes loud feedback, frightening and jarring for the audience. Eventually, as Stiller moves closer and closer to the truth, these harse soundtrack bursts of sound become more frequent. The first half of the film finishes on this bizaare note, like waking up screaming from a nightmare, as the soundtrack feedsback. Then there's a sharp cutaway to the end titles, while Fleetwood Mac's ALBATROSE song plays. Part two begins with Stiller's discovery that he lives in a computer program. He, and his entire world, isnt real. (The paralells to THE MATRIX are obvious.) What he discovered, was that even tho there are computer simulations "below" the level of reality of his computer world, there are also worlds "above" his world, until you finally come to our REAL world. The second part centers around Stiller's detective work, trying to discover how to break thru to reality. And one person in his circle of friends is real, and will help him attempt to escape the computer program.
If we treat the scifi elements as abstraction, then the film fits comfortably into the avant guard style so often found in Fassbinder's work. Much of Fassbinder's ironic tone derives from lifting Serk's Hollywood mainstream film noir/melodrama, and placing it over strange, modern situations. (Chinese Roulette worked that way, as did Bitter Tears.) I'm often surprised at how much Fassbiner reminds me of David Lynch, who also loves mystery, avant guard, scifi elements, and mixing the normal with the bizarre for ironic tonality. Both directors love to write their films, and both employ idiomatic cinematography to jar the viewer from complacenty. The Criterion edition is first rate, with an entire DVD and booklet devoted to deconstructing the work, and placing it in the larger context of Fassbinder's other films. Altho WORLD ON A WIRE is a bit slow paced, and even obvious, it doesnt detract. After you accept the seriousness of STILLER's quest to discover the dark secret of IKZ industries, then the movie will have hooked you in, as you wait for the plot to unfold. The lack of special effects to drive home the visual element of a future setting matter as little here, as they do in Tarkovsky's best Scifi work like STALKER or SOLARIS. The dialogue, music, and settings provide scifi cinema of the MIND, not scifi of CGI and special effects. In Conclusion: Fassbinder fans will LOVE the film, as will fans of Tarkovsky's scifi work.
A government research institute is attempting to build a simulated world inside a computer and populate it with artificial people, with the idea that social and economic problems can be simulated via the community inside the computer. With the project nearing completion, the project director, Professor Vollmer, begins acting strangely during a meeting with a government minister, and dies mysteriously shortly thereafter. But, not before revealing to a friend that he has discovered a secret connected with the project -- something no one is suppose to know about! Vollmer's assistant, Fred Stiller, is promoted to Director and told to complete the project quickly.
Stiller soon learns about Vollmer's claim to have found something wrong, and suspects his death was not accidental. Stiller looks and acts more like a 70s detective than a computer scientist: hard drinking, heavy smoking, and tailor-made suits. In fact, he spends much more time on his investigation than he does actually working on the project.
In a subplot, the Institute's overall director, Siskins, a polished, well-manicured money man, is planning to sell the project's data to private industry rather than release it to the public.
There is a major revelation at the end of Part One, with enough twists and turns in Part Two to keep you guessing right up to the end. In fact, the film gets better and better with subsequent viewings as you can appreciate how skillfully the story is peppered with clues - even the acting style itself is a clue.
I recommend it highly with a few words of warning. The film has the usual polish one expects from a Criterion restoration, but was shot on 16mm film and may be too grainy for some tastes, and since it was made for 70s TV it is not wide screen. Also, it is in German with English subtitles, but no English soundtrack.