Known for his prolific output of dramas over the course of 15-20 years, West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a major figure in the Neuer Deutscher Film film movement that was at its height in the 1970s, along with other directors such as Helma Sanders-Brahms, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta and numerous others. While most of his films tended to fit in the “melo-drama” category, such as The Marriage of Maria Braun, Chinese Roulette and Veronika Voss, he did take one venture into the realm of science fiction with his 1973 film World On A Wire (original German title: Welt Am Draht), which was shown as a two part mini-series on West German television at the time, clocking in at a total of almost 3h30m in length.
Based on a book published in 1964 called Simulacron-3 by American writer Daniel F. Galouye, the plot line for both the book and the resulting film deals with a cybernetics engineer, Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), that unravels a conspiracy at a government institute that specializes in creating virtual reality environments that leaves him— at least in the film — wondering if he’s existing in real life or in a simulated environment. This whole concept sort of echoes the first times I attempted to watch it over the years, often opting to start watching this three and a half hour epic late at night, drifting in and out of consciousness during it’s duration. Was I watching this film? Or was I dreaming?
Perhaps this was due to the slow pace of the film — one that demands active viewer attention to follow the story. Unlike a lot of science fiction, World On A Wire falls more into the “philosophical science fiction” category, less reliant on action, strange worlds and flashy effects, with more emphasis on ideas and concepts conveyed through the dialogue of the characters. For those familiar with the atmosphere in the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky‘s science fiction output, namely Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), the slow, dialogue-heavy pacing of World On A Wire has a lot of similarities, taking strong philosophical concepts about existence, reality and theoretical scenarios and committing them into a cinematic format.
I ended up giving World On A Wire a full, dedicated re-watch recently with the Criterion Collection version of the film that was released in 2012. Where this film lacks in action and pacing that’s more associated with Hollywood/big studio science fiction films, it certainly makes up for it in gorgeous cinematography, incredible interior design of the sets (especially for those keen on retro-future design of the 1970s) and fantastic costuming, which adds a bit of that early to mid 70s Luchino Visconti glamour to what is essentially a futuristic, speculative science fiction film. The overall style of the cinematography uses a lot of orange and blue tones, the later especially for the more dream-like and technological aspects of the film, which includes the laboratories of the fictional IKZ (Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung) where most of the action takes place in the film.
Another visual motif that carries throughout most of the film is the use of mirrors and glass, likely to reflect the concept of living in a simulation — many shots showing the characters reflected through mirrors, or through glass panes and doors, or figures distorted through glass objects to heighten the sense of a distorted reality. There’s also great uses of focus pulls, blurred transitions and sweeping camera motion shots moving through rooms or circling around the characters as they move throughout the various incredible sets, whether it be in the IKZ institute, the lavish apartments of the characters or in bars and restaurants, whether these locations be grounded in reality or in the simulation. The glamorous costuming, especially of the female characters, seems strangely out of place for such sterile environments, hinting more and more that the environment of the protagonist Stiller is likely a simulation rather than reality — something that is found out as the film progresses (yes, this is a plot spoiler).
This visually styling is paired up with the film’s soundtrack, which ranges from easy listening German pop instrumentals from the day contrasted with passages of brutal, robotic modular synth experiments for the more tense moments of the film. In the credits that bookend the film the popular instrumental track “Albatross” by a pre-Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac adds a nice resolve. This track was released on the band’s late 60s debut album and one of the few cases of an instrumental track reaching a #1 position in the pop charts.
Like most of Fassbinder’s films from this period, familiar faces cast in many of his other films appear in World On A Wire, including the aforementioned Klaus Löwitsch along with Margit Carstensen, Uli Lommel, Barbara Valentin, Kurt Raab, Ivan Desny, Gottfried John, Eddie Constantine and Ingrid Caven. Absent from this film are two of his most well-known regular acting talents, Günther Kaufmann (who starred with Fassbinder in the 1982 film Kamikaze 1989, which I’ve covered previously) and Hanna Schygulla, the latter who at this time had taken a break from working on Fassbinder’s film projects due to a pay dispute while making Effi Briest a year earlier. She’d come back into the fold for his 1978 film The Marriage of Maria Braun, which is arguably Fassbinder’s most successful film.
The 1970s seemed to be a time when a lot of paranoid science-fiction cinema was appearing on screens, whether they be big studio films or made-for-TV series. A British example from the same time might be Doomwatch, which aired on BBC from 1970 to 1972. Like World On A Wire it works in philosophical science fiction, heavy in dialogue and debates between the various main characters in a variety of strange “what if?” scenarios.
As Doomwatch was a serial that spanned over three series, it dealt with numerous plotlines based on various environmental and technological dangers: from plastic eating viruses, genetic mutations and computer meltdowns — all eerily foreshadowing issues that would take more prevalence in “real life” in decades to come. However, Doomwatch, lacks the cinematic glamour of World On A Wire, more falling into those muted orange, olive green and brown tones that were omnipresent in the early 1970s — everything from the office interiors to the strange wardrobe choices that pushed the threshold of what was professional “office attire” in that era.
All in all it was a time when you could go to an office meeting wearing brown, giant bell-bottom flares, drink 3 large brandies with a government official by 11am in the morning and then chain smoke a pack of cigarettes while working furiously against the clock in a secret government computer lab. Or in the case of World On A Wire‘s Stiller, just go down to the bar and have a few whiskies after discovering that your whole life has been a simulation.