A picture: a city in which the architecture is all vertical or horizontal lines. A car drives toward us through soft sleet that shimmers the image blue. Two white banners hang inconspicuously on either side of the road. The swaying of the banners and the liquid image contrast with the solidity of the buildings, cars, and men in trench coats and fedoras.
Welcome to the future—which is also Paris in the winter of 1973.
The picture I have described is the first shot of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's two-part television film World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), based on a science fiction novel by Daniel F. Galouye, shown on German television in the fall of 1973, seldom seen again until a version beautifully restored by the Fassbinder Foundation began to make its way through Europe and the U.K. in 2010, and now the U.S. in 2011.
Had the film had wider distribution originally, we would be tempted to say many later movies, especially The Matrix, ripped off its themes and ideas. But those themes and ideas have been around at least since Plato. Indeed, the premise of World on a Wire is explicitly a riff on Plato's allegory of the cave from The Republic, although I wouldn't be surprised if Galouye had been at least vaguely familiar with Philip K. Dick's early stories and novels, especially Eye in the Sky and Time Out of Joint, when he sat down to write Simulacron-3 (aka Counterfeit World), the novel that led to World on a Wire. The concept brings virtual reality to Plato, or vice versa: in the late 20th century, a large computer company develops a simulated world for research purposes, corporations do their best to try to bribe access to information that will give them a leg up on their competition, and one of the programmers discovers that that's not the worst of it—the truth is that their own reality is just a simulation. Or maybe he's crazy.
Fassbinder took this material and filtered it through his own influences: Douglas Sirk's melodramatic color schemes in 1950s films like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Jean-Luc Godard's the-future-is-now-and-noiry approach to science fiction in Alphaville, certain flourishes from Francois Truffaut's adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, a bit of Tarkovsky's Solaris, a dash of Bertolt Brecht's alienation effects, and perhaps even a whiff of The Prisoner, which first aired in West Germany in 1969. What makes World on a Wire such a marvel, and one of the great cinematic rediscoveries of recent years, is that it is rich with both science fiction and Fassbinder.
Fassbinder was not a likely maker of science fiction movies. His interests focused on his immediate world and how it got to be the way it was; many of his best films are historical dramas. However, it makes sense for Fassbinder to have tried SF at least once, because he enjoyed exploring, exploiting, and eviscerating film genres—many of his first films appropriated tropes from American gangster movies (and the interpretation of their style by Godard, Truffaut, and, particularly, Jean-Pierre Melville), he made a bizarre western with Whitey, and the first movies to bring him fame were ones deliberately patterned on Sirkean "women's films."
World on a Wire was made quickly, as were most of Fassbinder's movies, amidst his usual welter of other work. In 1972, he had made one of his greatest films, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, as well as a controversial film adaptation of a Franz Xaver Kroetz play, Jailbait (aka Wild Game; Kroetz denounced it as pornographic), and a five-episode TV series (Eight Hours are Not a Day), amidst which he directed a theatre production, wrote and directed a radio play, started work on adapting and filming Fontane's novel Effi Briest, and co-scripted World on a Wire and prepared it for production. After finishing World on a Wire in March 1973, he filmed a television adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House in May, made the excellent feature film Martha from July to September, shot the heartbreaking masterpiece Fear Eats the Soul in September, and then filmed the rest of Effi Briest in October and November. (And throughout the year he worked at theatres in Berlin and Bochum.)
It's a cliché of any writing about Fassbinder to remark on his extraordinary productivity (over 40 films in 13 years, including as one title the 15 episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but even after people have remarked on it at least ten thousand four hundred and seventy-three times since Fassbinder died in 1982, it bears repeating and still amazes. What deserves no less an adjective than miraculous, though, was his ability to be that productive while also creating work which was so often powerful and innovative. Certainly, the cocaine that ultimately killed him may have helped hold back his more exhausted moments, but it can't be thanked for much, or else Hollywood, where cocaine has been as prevalent as smog, would have had its own Fassbinders. He was unique.
Fassbinder chose to shoot World on a Wire in Paris because the city offered buildings and furnishings that seemed to his eye more science fictional than he could readily find in Germany. His desire was to evoke the sense of a future setting as much as to portray it, and though the small budget of World on a Wire pretty much required such a choice, it suited Fassbinder's themes and purpose. He didn't want to raise the question "What is real?" simply for gosh-wow gimmickry. His purpose was the same as in almost all of his films: to portray dynamics of power. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant he had shown a triangle of women wherein power shifted almost with every uttered sentence; Martha and Effi Briest offered coruscating views of the power dynamics within marriages; Fear Eats the Soul relentlessly depicted the power of social norms to magnify prejudice and destroy lives.
World on a Wire feels lighter and less punishing (for audience and characters) than the films that immediately surround it in Fassbinder's oeuvre, perhaps because it's an adaptation of a novel. But Fassbinder showed in other adaptations that his sensibility was stubborn—in 1978 he filmed Nabokov's novel Despair from a script by Tom Stoppard, and the result is beautiful and strange, but it doesn't feel much like Nabokov and even less like Stoppard.
Fassbinder's other work at this time, though, was less epic than World on a Wire, and I use the term in both its conventional and its Brechtian sense, for Fassbinder was deeply influenced by Brecht, and again and again he chose techniques to keep the audience from escaping into the filmic dream. So while World on a Wire is epic in containing a lot of plot, characters, and action, it is epically Brechtian in some of the performers' acting styles, the design of the sets, and the choice of music and sound effects.
One element that keeps World on a Wire from blockbuster appeal is the lack of any character with whom an audience can fully sympathize or identify. Certainly, the protagonist, Fred Stiller, is the primary viewpoint character, but he's a cypher: we know little about his background or his personality, and, in an impressive performance by Fassbinder regular Klaus Löwitsch, he is a non-reflective container of wound-tight energy held together by torque. He lives in a world of proprietary information where iron-jawed masculinity is a badge of trustworthiness and the aggression inherent in careers of quiet hatreds is bound up with necktie knots.
Stiller fights forces he doesn't understand, forces that will give him anything he wants as long as he doesn't ask questions or refuse orders. Despite his own vows to be a good cog in the corporate gears, he is inquisitive and single-minded, devoted to an ideal of science untainted by commerce. This being a Fassbinder film, we fully expect him to end up like the protagonist of 1975's Fox and His Friends (played by Fassbinder himself): a late-night suicide in an empty subway station, ignored by the people who relished destroying him, his corpse plundered by pragmatic urchins. World on a Wire is science fiction, though, not social realism, and Stiller's fate is more ambiguous and weird than Fox's.
We want Stiller to win not because he's a charismatic hero or a paragon of virtue, but because we see the narrative through his experiences. He doesn't seem as awful and conniving as the people he works for, people always on the prowl for a good back into which to stick a knife (in that sense, the ruling class of World on a Wire is indistinguishable from the bourgeoisie of Fox and His Friends). Stiller is not a lovable sap like Sam Lowry in Brazil, nor a noir-inflected man of action like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. He's got traces of the confused anger and violence of Hans Epp in Fassbinder's first melodrama, The Merchant of Four Seasons, or the confused desires of Ali in Fear Eats the Soul, but in Stiller we get only a sketch of these tendencies, not a study. Fassbinder and Löwitsch built the character from sharp angles and long stares, as if somewhere inside him may lurk words like, "I am not a number—I am a free man!" Even if he found them, though, he wouldn't know how to believe them.
Along with the acting and characterization, sounds also shatter our ability to just let the movie happen to us. This is where the restoration is especially stunning (in addition to having transformed deteriorating 16mm film into beauty for contemporary screens). On a first encounter, the opening shot I described above may seem to have nothing but a low hum for its soundtrack, but there are all sorts of other sounds swirling in the hum: the cars and people, but also a distorted chorus, like music from a far-off world. Voices will at times be amplified to such an extent that conversations will sound like voiceovers—words detached from the film's reality, whispers in the viewer's mind. Sharp, high-pitched noises will blast Stiller and us, putting the pain in his head into our reality. Scenes will be scored with breathing.
The story itself is not straightforward, and it's rarely suspenseful in a traditional sense. Contemporary viewers, so used to virtual reality tales, are especially immune to the occasional pops of plot. The movie is not its summary, but even more than that, summary is irrelevant to its pleasures. The experience of the film is where the surprises sit, the engagement of the viewer-listener with what is viewed and heard. Numerous scenes are unnecessary to the development of the narrative; their purpose and pleasure is otherwise.
For instance, after various events have forced Stiller to run for his life, he rests for a bit at a nightclub and watches a Marlene Dietrich impersonator lip-sync "Lili Marlene" and then enact the execution scene at the end of Joseph von Sternberg's Dishonored, in which Dietrich's character is a tragic traitor for love. We had seen this impersonator early in the film at a corporate party where she sang a song Dietrich sang in George Marshall's 1939 western Destry Rides Again, "The Boys in the Back Room" (which Dietrich once dismissed as "a typical song, written for one of my Hollywood pictures"). The nightclub scene gives us an obvious example of something that is not what it appears to be—this is Dietrich's voice, but not her body, though the body, or at least the face, looks remarkably like hers—and she recreates for a live audience in the film a scene from another film. We become, then, both an audience watching the recreation and an audience watching an audience watch the recreation.
In the production design we encounter further obstacles to our escapist desires along with further replications and recreations of image: every set is full of mirrors, panes of glass, and video screens that multiply and divide what we see. It's a technique Fassbinder shared with and perhaps learned from Sirk, a motif that binds theme and character through environment, a funhouse of objective correlatives—but he never used mirrors, glass, and screens as extensively (or insistently) as in World on a Wire. In some shots, it's impossible to tell whether we are watching a mirror image or its source, which is exactly the conundrum that obsesses Stiller.
It must have been hell on the cinematographers, Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz, because reflective surfaces not only limit where camera and crew can set up without being seen, but also make lighting complex. Ballhaus, at least, is on record as having enjoyed many of the challenges Fassbinder set up for him over their years of working together (before it just got to be too much and Ballhaus headed off to America, where Martin Scorsese, among others, happily scooped him up). In their next film together, Martha, Ballhaus and Fassbinder would create a renowned and disorienting 360-degree shot that feels like it places the movie itself inside a mirror. Expressionism was never far from Fassbinder's palette.
Ballhaus, in fact, was so taken with the concepts in Galouye's novel that he became executive producer for a later adaptation of it, The Thirteenth Floor, which had the bad luck to come out a few months after The Matrix, where similar ideas were presented with more panache.
The Thirteenth Floor has its virtues, but comparing it to World on a Wire, which had a vastly smaller budget and no CGI, what most stands out is how much depth Fassbinder found in the material. The Thirteenth Floor and World on a Wire have opposite relations to their audiences, with Thirteenth Floor aspiring for what most commercial products desire: the viewer/consumer's surrender. World on a Wire provides entertainment and spectacle, but it does so while also pushing us away, keeping us in the position of the programmer-voyeurs in the movie who watch (on computer screens that look like old TV screens) how their creations act and interact. The name the scientist-programmers use for the process of entering into the simulated realm is "projection"—like Freud going to the movies.
The conclusion of World on a Wire offers what some people have said is a surprisingly happy ending to a Fassbinder film, but they're letting optimism get the best of them. Stiller gets the girl and new life, as does the hero in any action movie or melodrama, but Eva (Mascha Rabben) is mostly mysterious, and even Stiller is anything but a well-rounded figure. (Which is, perhaps, part of the point. The forces in these worlds narrow the range of human expressions and possibilities to no more than two dimensions.) Among cinema cognoscenti in the '70s, the party line on Sirk's melodramas was that their endings were only superficially happy, and any second thought would reveal their fissures; such is the case with World on a Wire, where the fissures are infinite. Stiller, after all, seems only a spit away from psychosis—anyone who thinks the ending is happy forgets one of the most bizarre moments in a film full of them. Stiller walks past a construction site, he asks a woman for a light for his cigarette, she says she doesn't smoke, and a moment later a bunch of construction material falls and flattens her into the ground. Unmoved by her sudden death, Stiller notices a lighter has fallen free of her coat, so he picks it up, lights his cigarette, and walks on. And this is before he believes everything in his world is an illusion. Later, when Eva comes to find him after he's gone on the lam, he shoots out the windshield of her car before he even has a chance to know who's driving. He may get a new life at the end, but he's still the same brain patterns, and if we accept the truths revealed in the conclusion (though there is little reason to think any information in the film is entirely reliable), then he and Eva have collaborated in a murder. The final image is of a dead body.
World on a Wire is a revelation and a wonder, though still early in Fassbinder's career, and he had many masterpieces ahead of him. His vast oeuvre makes hierarchies tempting, a way to separate and cull and make it all manageable, but Fassbinder was a type of artist for whom such sifting is, I think, if not entirely harmful, at least irrelevant. Certainly, some of his films are more accessible or accomplished than others, and there are definite high-water marks such as Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Berlin Alexanderplatz that, if you dislike them, mean Fassbinder's probably not your thing. But, as with some of the greatest and most productive auteurs (Hitchcock, for instance), each film is interesting not only for itself, but for how it relates to the others, how it fits in the puzzle of genius. Such a way of viewing allows nearly infinite pleasures and moments of interests, because once you watch one film, you will think of another, and that other will inspire ideas about another . . . und so weiter, und so weiter . . .
World on a Wire is full of pleasures, though, even for viewers not obsessed with all of Fassbinder's iterations. That it was unappreciated and unseen for so long is baffling; that it is now widely available is cause for joy and celebration.
Information on the chronology of Fassbinder's work derived from Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Wallace Steadman Watson and Fassbinder's Germany by Thomas Elsaesser.