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Blu-ray Review: World On A Wire – The Criterion Collection

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Based on the science fiction novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder co-wrote and directed World On A Wire in 1973 for German television. The two-part movie was shown twice on television in the ’70s, and then all but inaccessible and forgotten until its restoration and re-release in 2010 by the Fassbinder Foundation.

The Movie

Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is a researcher at IKZ, a government technology firm conducting cutting-edge experiments on future simulation. Their key project is a computer that creates a simulated world just like our own, complete with a database of unique personalities. Within this test space they can introduce questions and see how the model world responds in accelerated time, thereby predicting how the future will play out in the real world.

Stiller is promoted to lead researcher after the mysterious death of his predecessor, who became increasingly troubled and erratic after claiming some breakthroughs on the project. The promotion is not without its challenges, as Stiller soon realizes that in addition to their base research, they must also use this new technology to help a wealthy and influential steel maker. But even more troubling to Stiller is the fact that there are strange anomalies happening ever since his promotion: a former coworker mysteriously disappears at a party, as well as his memory from the other employees; a report that Stiller filed to the local paper and police department strangely vanishes; persons from their test world begin communicating back. In trying to unravel all of these mysteries, Stiller discovers more and more evidence about the project that puts his life in constant peril.

Fassbinder’s take on science fiction relies more on mood than machines. There is a heavy emphasis on the philosophical side of artificial intelligence, which is held together by a very modern stylized look. Architecture and location decor are given sumptuous visual real estate, with the science fiction element more relegated to how the characters interact within this world. Fassbinder’s love of mirrors and reflections take on a heightened meaning here, as (some) characters are forced to deal with how real their present reality may or may not be, and whether they are indeed fully human or rather a reflection or created personality type.

The tone of the two-part film is almost deliberately slow. To be sure, there are some action sequences, as well as scenes where the technology at work is displayed. But the drive of the story is more a “what if?” question. What if we could create a fully sentient, populated and evolutionary simulation of our own world? And if we could, how could we know we weren’t also a simulation? Adequate space is given for the main character, as well as a few others, to ruminate on these questions. In many ways it takes cues from Godard’s Alphaville. Both are stylish, exposition-rich, near-future cautionary tales on the marraige of technology and corruption, and both also feature noir-ish lead roles of men haunted by truth in worlds populated with those who are oblivious – and/or deadened – to its destructive nature. (And perhaps also because Eddie Constantine, the lead from Alphaville, has a cameo role here as well.)

Although World On A Wire was Fassbinder’s only work of science fiction, its themes of artificial intelligence and alternate realities became a precursor for more mainstream films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix. But World On A Wire is every bit as stylish – albeit in an art-house way – as well as perhaps more of a basic philosophical mind game about technology and progress.

Video/Audio

To start, I think that World On A Wire looks very good. But that comes with some qualifications. Grain is kept intact and heavy throughout, but there are moments where it’s so thick as to be static. Most of the film is on the soft side, with many scenes – perhaps where only one take was available for editing – where sharpness is very stretched, and creates awkward cuts within scenes. Almost all of these instances, however, look obviously to be source issues instead of anything restoration-related. In fact, that we have this movie at all and that it looks this good is impressive. Source issues should also be held in light of the fact that we’re looking at a film created for television, and also one that was made in an impressively compact span of time for it’s length.

There is only one audio track, which is an LPCM 1.0 German language track with English subtitles. The audio here is preserved very well, with an impressive depth and clarity for a mono track, especially with the early synthesizer cues. There is obviously no channel separation to speak of, but this is a strong 1.0 track. Dialogue comes through clear and clean, and effects and environmental noise are kept very well balanced. Even Fleetwood Mac’s ambient instrumental “Albatross” – which becomes the default movie theme – is still richly evocative here.

Bonus Material

There are two main supplemental features included with the disc. The first is a documentary entitled “Fassbinder’s ‘World On A Wire': Looking Ahead To Today” (HD, 50:39) which includes interviews with Fritz Müller-Scherz, Fassbinder’s co-screenwriter on the film; Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, who played company head Herbert Siskins; and Michael Ballhaus, who was director of photography on the film. The interviewees shed some light on how the film came to be, Fassbinder’s directorial style, and how he arrived at the overall look and tone of the film.

The second feature is an interview with German film scholar Gerd Gemünden (HD, 34:14). He gives a more critical look at the themes of the story and how World On A Wire fits into Fassbinder’s filmography. Gemünden elaborates on some of the visual motifs present in this and other Fassbinder films, as well as how he went about choosing a varied spectrum of German actors who would become regulars in his films. (Both of the main supplemental items contain multiple spoilers, so viewers should be careful to watch the film before exploring further.)

Also included is the trailer for the film’s 2010 re-release (HD, 1:35), and a booklet containing an essay on the movie by film critic Ed Halter.

Conclusion

At three-and-a-half hours in length, World On A Wire can be a bit of a slow burn for those used to more action and fast pacing in their science fiction films. But Fassbinder’s influential – and at times prescient – film on both artificial intelligence and corporate greed has the ability to inspire discussion and debate well after the film has finished. And its length never overstays its welcome; the movie takes its time but also creates a unique and compelling atmosphere. Aided by its beautiful and meticulously filmed sets, World On A Wire is an ambitious and rewarding science fiction film.

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