TIFF’s been doing a retrospective on the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A prodigious wunderkind of the seventies German New Wave, he died of a drug overdose at 37, leaving behind over 40 features and television mini-series made in a brief 15-year career. (Cocaine is a powerful drug in the right nose.) In that burgeoning output, Fassbinder made only one science fiction film. World on a Wire appeared in 1973, a made-for-TV two-parter that virtually disappeared soon after its release. Steeped in a 1970s futurist aesthetic, the film is both wildly dated and amazingly anticipatory, a speculative plunge into the world of virtual reality fully 36 years ahead of The Matrix. Turns out Neo wasn’t the only one popping pills to see what’s really going on.
World on a Wire centers on the taciturn scientist Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), the new technical director for the sinister IKZ corporation. His promotion follows the suspicious death of his predecessor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), who was about to reveal a disturbing discovery. Stiller and his former mentor have been entrusted with the development of the Simulacron, an entirely digital world populated with artificial but sentient beings. IKZ’s shady boss Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau) professes that the Simulacron will only be used for government forecasting, but makes no bones of his desire to farm the simulation out to corporate interests for their own research. Stiller has a curious conversation with IKZ’s director of security Lause (Ivan Desny) at a trippy indoor poolside bar, but the man literally disappears mid-conversation. Slowly Stiller realizes that the disappearance is far deeper, more like erasure, as no one he asks has even heard of Lause.
The film takes on a noir-ish, Blade Runner vibe, as Stiller tries to protect the Simulacron from corporate meddling while delving into Lause’s mysterious vanishing. He’s aided by Vollmer’s daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben), falling for her even as he’s distracted by his seductive secretary Gloria (Barbara Valentin), an obvious Siskins agent. His search takes him into the Simulacron itself, where he meets an enigmatic informant named Einstein (Gottfried John). The story twists tighter when he discovers that Einstein has escaped the Simulacron, only to reveal that Stiller himself is living in a simulation, just one level higher. The levels of reality at play are entirely modern, prefiguring the likes of The Matrix, Westworld and Inception. Stiller’s uncertain what to do with such a revelation, and for that matter, so’s Fassbinder, but it’s a fascinating, hypnotic exploration of the problem.
World on a Wire is a striking, meandering blast of the future as seen from the past. The film’s aesthetic is gorgeous and dated, largely filmed in a ’70s futurist building in Paris. Washed-out TV screens are everywhere, and mirrors and reflective surfaces pervade the multilayered narrative. Michael Ballhaus supplies the superb cinematography, many years before his acclaimed work with Martin Scorsese from the mid-’80s on. The analog synth soundtrack burbles and buzzes with unsettling artificiality, heightening the aura of cerebral tension.
Though he’s been dead for over 30 years, Fassbinder’s films often feel surprisingly contemporary. He cleverly plays with genre trappings, mashing up melodrama and film noir to explore the psyche of post-war Germany. His are adventurous films, too, with a polymorphous sexuality that could only be called omnivorous. Made for TV, World on a Wire is more buttoned-down than his other work, jettisoning his typical wrenching emotionality for a much cooler tone. The film is an intriguing early exploration of concepts we’re deeply immersed in today, as mass virtual reality and artificial intelligence seem destined to dominate our future very soon. At three hours, World on a Wire can be a bit of a slog, but it rewards the patient viewer. Apparently, we’ve been tumbling down the rabbit hole for some time.
World on a Wire plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre in Toronto on Sunday, December 4th at 4:15 p.m. You can find more info here. TIFF’s program Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder continues through to the end of December.