World on a Wire: Smoke and Mirrors in Paranoid Unreality

World on a Wire (German: Welt am Draht)(1973) Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, and Karl-Heinz Vosgerau. Screenplay by Fritz Müller-Scherz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye.

One of the things I like to do when I’m researching movies for this film club is to read about how they were received and interpreted at the time of their release. In cinema, an art form that is always self-consciously contemplating itself, and in science fiction, a genre that constantly uses similar premises to talk about very different themes and ideas, I like getting a glimpse at how audiences responded to a movie when it first appeared.

I haven’t been able to do that with World on a Wire. There is quite a lot of writing out there about the life and works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the provocative, controversial German filmmaker who made forty-some movies over a span of less than fifteen years before dying of a drug overdose at age thirty-seven. But everybody seems to agree that World on a Wire, his only work of science fiction, was always one of his more obscure films. It was first broadcast in two parts on West German television in 1973 and screened theatrically a few times before just sort of fading away, until the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation digitally restored the film in 2010 with the help of its original cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus.

These days, critics and audiences are extremely familiar with the ideas and tropes of virtual reality in movies. Everybody watching World on a Wire since the restoration was released in 2010 is doing so in a world that has already seen Tron (1982), The Matrix (1999), and that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Professor Moriarty tries to escape the holodeck to live in the real world. Not to mention The Thirteenth Floor, Josef Rusnak’s 1999 film that is somewhere between a remake of Fassbinder’s film and an adaptation of the same novel. But that wasn’t the case in 1973. Of course, the science fictional concept of virtual reality in general, and the particular version of it that encompasses people unknowingly living in virtual worlds, had been around for some time; World on a Wire is based on the American novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye (also published under the title Counterfeit World). And it was one of the first movies about virtual reality—maybe even the very first, although that’s hard to prove or even define. But the fact that the film languished in obscurity for a few decades makes it difficult to assess whether it was influential on what followed.

So we’ll just take the movie as it is—which is completely fine, because it’s great. It’s very long and a bit slow at times, but overall it’s unsettling, tense, oddly touching in parts, and absolutely gorgeous to look at.

The film is centered around a man named Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) who works at the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Sciences (Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung, or IKZ for short). Along with Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), Stiller has developed a highly advanced simulation for a supercomputer; they have created an entire simulation world and peopled it with some 9,000 simulated individuals for the purpose of modeling societal changes over time. At the beginning of the film, Vollmer dies under mysterious circumstances, right after confiding to the head of security, Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), that he has discovered something terrible about their project.

Lause conveys this to Stiller at a party hosted by their boss, Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau). The bizarre, uncomfortable party is the film’s first look at what happens when you combine stylized filmmaking with surreal philosophical science fiction with—let’s be honest—basically just what I assume rich people social gatherings were like in the ’70s. After Lause tells Stiller there was something strange about Vollmer’s last days and death, Lause disappears. He doesn’t walk away; he just vanishes. This is, naturally, very alarming to Stiller. He tells Siskins; he calls the police; it’s reported in the press.

Then, just as abruptly, everybody begins telling Stiller they have never heard of Lause. Nobody else remembers him. The police have no idea what he’s talking about.

As sci fi fans in the 21st century, our minds immediately land on the explanation that Stiller is likely also in a simulation or is being manipulated in some similar way. But even before cinema and television provided an entire canon of virtual reality stories to lead us to that conclusion, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Fassbinder intended. The screechy electronic musical cue whenever something is changing around Stiller is not subtle, nor are the many philosophical conversations about perception and reality and wondering if the virtual people know they are just programming. We can easily spot evidence for it, once we start to look. Some of the evidence is subtle and unsettling, such as the way bystanders in many scenes will stare blankly at the characters, creating sensations of both unnatural inaction and constant surveillance. Some of it is very much not subtle, such as the scene in which a woman on the street is crushed by a falling load of concrete and nobody reacts appropriately.

But even if we are meant to know, Stiller does not, so the film follows his increasingly paranoid and desperate attempts to find out what’s going on. One of his friends is dead, another is missing, and he knows it has something to do with the simulation he has helped create. He pops into the simulation world himself and meets up with a simulated person called Einstein (Gottfried John), who serves as the research team’s “contact” in the virtual reality. Einstein is the only one of the virtual people who knows they’re virtual, and he tries to escape by taking over another man’s body. When he does so, he tells Stiller that Stiller isn’t in the real world either, but in another layer of a simulated world.

Stiller sets out to find out if this is true, his suspicions growing and his sanity unraveling all the while. He wants to find his world’s version of the “contact” person, but his efforts make all the other characters extremely wary of him. There is also a subplot about how Siskins is secretly colluding with a steel company to use the computer for corporate, commercial purposes, rather than the non-commercial social purposes for which it was designed, which is the sort of detail that feels like a glitch in this reality. Gosh, what would the world be like if corporations could use powerful computer simulations for commercial purposes? (Imagine me staring directly into the camera as I type that.)

Because it’s been obvious all along, the confirmation that Stiller’s world is a simulation isn’t a surprise—but it also doesn’t help him much. It only puts him in greater danger. Eva Vollmer (Mascha Rabben) reveals to Stiller that he was created as a simulation of the real-world programmer controlling this virtual world; that man, she says, has gone mad with power and delights in tormenting his virtual counterpart.

There are hardly any special effects to speak of in World on a Wire; the technology on-screen rarely has a science fictional appearance. But the movie still manages to convey a powerful sense of paranoid unreality by using its actors, setting, and truly brilliant cinematography.

I’ve already mentioned the eerie, blank way bystanders act—or fail to react—in several scenes. It’s noticeable when they are in a crowd, such as in a party or at a club, but it’s also very unsettling in scenes with only a few characters. When Einstein escapes his virtual world in the body of Stiller’s friend Fritz (Günter Lamprecht) and Stiller physically attacks him, the cafeteria worker witnessing this stands there the entire time with a bemused expression on her face, barely reacting even when they smash a table. Waiters tend to appear and disappear without warning—which might be how we perceive service staff in real life, but is heightened here to a jarring degree. Furthermore, there is often something just slightly off about how many of the characters are behaving. The nonstop drinking and smoking might just be a relic of the ’70s, sure, but there is also something pointedly self-conscious about the habits, such as when Stiller is messily rolling cigarettes on a conference table at a meeting with his boss and the secretary of state. We know it’s absurd, he knows it’s absurd, but the other characters seem to think they’re having a perfectly normal meeting about the institute fulfilling its governmental obligations. It works because the cast is all very good at coming across as just a bit off.

The movie was filmed in Paris, but for the most part the setting is completely interior: inside the offices at IKZ, inside the computer room, inside various homes and bars and clubs. One thing I absolutely love is how dense and rich the décor is. The rooms are filled with art pieces, the furniture is draped with furs, and even the telephones are stylishly shaped and brightly colored. There are several scenes that are a feast for the eyes, and this is highlighted by the way some characters are dressed. The (white) men mostly have suits and sideburns and mile-wide ties, but the women have a glorious array of fashion and hairstyles that add to the ornateness of every scene. The effect is not always a good one—the way women and men of color are literally objectified as part of the scenery might be intentional, but it’s also deeply off-putting—but the impact is still there. There is something designed about this world and these people, and we see it even without the science fictional or technological special effects.

But my favorite tactic the film has of keeping us off-balance in this unreal world is in its camerawork. The cinematography by Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz is stunning. There isn’t much information out there about Prinz; he doesn’t have many credits to his name. Ballhaus, on the other hand, is widely regarded as one of the best cinematographers to have worked in the movie business. He collaborated with Fassbinder on several films before making a move to Hollywood, where he worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, and Francis Ford Coppola. You’ve almost certainly seen Ballhaus’ work before, and that includes a particular quirk for which he is especially famous: the long 360-degree tracking shot. Ballhaus and Fassbinder established that technique while working on the film Martha (1974); they filmed World on a Wire at more or less exactly the same time, during the summer of 1973, and it too makes extensive use of different types of dizzying 360-degree shots.

My favorite example is in the second part of the film, when Siskins and Holm (Kurt Raab) are in the computer room discussing what to do about Stiller. The room is washed with cool, metallic blue light and completely wrapped in reflective surfaces. Holm is wearing a black suit and seated, while Siskins is wearing a bright plaid jacket and is pacing around constantly. In every single shot, there are multiple versions of both men, reflected from the countless mirrors. And as the camera moves and rotates, including turning in a complete circle, it becomes impossible to tell the men from their reflections. It’s disorienting, discomfiting, and really incredibly cool. It echoes the use of mirrors throughout the film: characters are often shot in reflection, so that they never seem to be looking in quite the right direction. The disruption of visual lines is hugely effective in weaving that sense of wrongness into scenes throughout the film.

It’s Eva who finds a way to bring Stiller out of the virtual world at the end, by transferring his consciousness into the body of his creator. We suspect this is possible, because Einstein has done it before. But right up until it happened, I didn’t know if that’s where the film would go. I had absolutely no idea. It is certainly not a movie that carries an obvious promise of a happy ending; it works too hard throughout its running time to keep us unsettled and unsteady. Other characters are callously deleted; there is no reason for us to trust that Stiller won’t be as well. His knowledge that he’s a virtual person in a virtual world does not imbue him with any special powers or advantage. He doesn’t automatically know things he didn’t know before; he doesn’t have any new skills or tricks. He can’t change the rules of his world, nor is he really trying to.

The changeable perspective, the untrustworthy perception, the sense of being both a part of the world but also separate from it, all of this works together to create this unreal reality. Because of the other virtual reality stories I’ve read and watched over the years, I went in expecting another story in which the entire point of awareness within the virtual world is to obtain some control over it. But Stiller’s goal is never to wrench power away from the unseen sadist playing god with his virtual world; he doesn’t even know about that man for the vast majority of the film. He only ever wants to know. He’s basically hosting a one-man epistemology seminar that features a lot of whisky, way too many cigarettes, and people constantly trying to shoot him. He wants to know how to define his world. He wants to know he isn’t crazy. He wants to know that the friend he remembers was real, that the things he saw really happened, that his paranoia does not come from nothing.

In the end, I’m glad that the film does have a happy ending, more or less, because I found that I very much wanted Stiller’s knowledge of his world to lead to some change. At the same time, I also really like the way the film doesn’t quite embrace what is often the central fantasy of virtual reality stories: the idea that having secret knowledge of your world gives you a superior power to alter it. Stiller has the knowledge, but he doesn’t have the power; that still comes from outside the simulation, from people not subject to the same rules. It’s a fascinatingly bleak examination of the perception of free will, and exactly the sort of story I love to see explored when sci fi plays with virtual reality.

What do you think about World on a Wire? Which of the lengthy rotating tracking shots was your favorite? How do you think it fits into the genre of virtual reality sci fi, which is often weird and almost always a bit philosophical?

Next week: Let’s get lost in the intersection between illusion and reality with Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes. Watch it on Amazon and BFI (UK only). icon-paragraph-end

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