A gloriously paranoid, boundlessly inventive take on the future.
In America, the television movie is a degraded form, usually the province of sappy, formulaic movie-of-the-week sleepers or afterschool special dramas. That’s not the case in other countries, especially in Europe, where nationally controlled television industries produced a variety of content, including feature-length films. Some of the best directors of the past forty or so years have found some or all of their funding from European television. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the mad German filmmaker, is no exception. He worked at such a furious pace (forty films before his death at thirty-seven) that theatrical distribution would not have been able to accommodate his output, necessitating recourse to television work as well. In fact, World on a Wire (Welt Am Draht in the original German) was produced for German television while Fassbinder was on hiatus for another film. Though it’s an obscure entry in a gargantuan catalogue, Criterion have lavished their usual care on this three-and-a-half-hour sci-fi epic. Fassbinder fans are going to want to snap up World on a Wire (Blu-ray).
In the near future (1973’s near future, anyway), there’s a supercomputer that runs a simulation of “identity units,” where the consciousness of people has been copied. When the director of research dies under mysterious circumstances, his replacement (Klaus Lowitsch) suspects a corporate conspiracy aimed at virtual reality.
Arguably, the Apollo moon landing in the summer of 1969 was the peak of human technological achievement, the fulfillment of a million sci-fi dreams of travelling to the stars. Though there was critical sci-fi before the moon landing, the sci-fi of the ’70s seemed to be in a technological hangover. Distrust of corporations, radical paranoia, and stories about the dehumanizing aspects of technology proliferated. Whether it was Britain’s New Worlds school or the amphetamine-fueled narratives of Philip K. Dick, negative views of the future (and the present) were seemingly everywhere. This was mirrored in film as well. Ed Halter points out in his essay on the film (included in the booklet with this release) that World on a Wire slots nicely in with films like La Jetee, Alphaville, and J’Taime, J’Taime.
Almost forty years later, World on a Wire has three main virtues. The first is its bold approach to genre. Sci-fi here is reproduced on a shoestring budget, leading to a world where television screens and molded plastic chairs come to stand in for futuristic environments. Lacking the ability to dazzle with special effects, Fassbinder instead turns the film into a psychological meditation on existence, and (much like Philip K. Dick) questions what it means to be or have consciousness. In a modern world where sci-fi means robots, explosions, and the occasional spaceship, Fassbinder’s vision feels refreshing. The paranoia of the protagonist also gives the film a noirish vibe that’s interesting.
The film’s second virtue is related to the first: today, numerous media are returning not just to the past for inspiration, but to the past’s view of the future. Understanding how previous generations have viewed the future (which is almost always different from our own) helps spur new developments in the present, like the interest in so-called “hauntology.” The fact that World on a Wire posits strong artificial intelligence and virtual reality as future tech without then stumbling on the idea of the Internet or World Wide Web is an intriguing one. This sort of retro-futuristic (or futuristic-retro) atmosphere will appeal to fans of the odd.
Finally, the film is intriguing because of Fassbinder. World on a Wire isn’t a massive statement like Berlin Alexanderplatz, but more like the genre exercise/homage of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. As a sort of “lost” film in the director’s canon, World on a Wire sheds new light on the ways the director was working out his formal and generic concerns early in his film career.
This is Criterion’s first Fassbinder Blu-ray, and it’s an auspicious debut. The film was shot on 16mm for television, so detail isn’t always perfect and grain can be a bit strong at times. However, this is a magnificent transfer. Within the limits of the 16mm format detail is remarkable, black levels are consistent and dark, and colors are impressively bold. Already we can see Fassbinder playing with the melodramatic use of color, and this AVC encoded transfer really does his vision justice. The LPCM mono track in German sounds as good as we can hope for, with natural dialogue and a fine balance with the music. Though World on a Wire was available on Blu-ray from another company, this edition adds English subtitles for those who don’t speak German.
Extras start with a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film that gives a solid overview of how the film came to be. We also get a short interview with a German scholar on the film, and a trailer for the film’s 2010 re-release. The usual Criterion booklet includes the aforementioned essay by film critic Ed Halter, which does a good job putting the film in context with Fassbinder’s other films and the general tenor of sci-fi fiction at the time.
I suspect very few people out there are thinking, “You know what’s missing in my life? A three-and-a-half-hour German sci-fi TV movie.” Like many Criterion titles, this film is aimed at a small niche market. Fans of the history of sci-fi cinema, fans of Fassbinder’s work more generally, and the truly curious will find something to appreciate, but the average viewer is probably better putting on The Matrix (which covers much of the same conceptual territory, but with more kung fu) again rather than watching this film.
Leave it to the fine folks at Criterion to take an obscure gem from an underappreciated director and polish it up to a high (definition) shine. World on a Wire (Blu-ray) presents a fascinating film that tells us a lot about sci-fi cinema and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The disc’s technical merits are unimpeachable, and the extras (while not excessive) give viewers a peek at the film’s production and its scholarly interpretation. Not for everyone, but for fans, this disc is easy to recommend.