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DVD Review: World on a Wire – The Criterion Collection

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Airing originally on German television as a two-part miniseries, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire is a prescient, intelligent, complex piece of work that serves as a precursor of sorts for films like The Matrix and Inception. Fassbinder’s film has now been released on Criterion Collection in its full three-and-a-half-hour glory and really should be experienced as a whole work.

World on a Wire is based on Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3. It has a very distinctive art house feel and is not an action-packed piece of science fiction, relying instead on feelings of paranoia and curiosity. There is certain pessimism as directed toward scientific “progress,” with Fassbinder choosing to critique the world rather than revel in futuristic technology and so forth. He does not use glitzy special effects or ornate backdrops to create his world, banking instead on plenty of mirrors and a general tone of detachment amongst the characters.

The protagonist is Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), an engineer working on a program called Simulacron. Simulacron is effectively a virtual reality universe, a smaller world inhabited by roughly 8,000 “identity units.” These units live as human beings and are unaware of the fact that they’re living in a simulation of reality. Things begin to pull apart when Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) comes upon a secret and, after some strange behaviour, dies in a mysterious incident.

Stiller, Vollmer’s successor, is determined to find out what Vollmer knew. He seeks out a man named Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), but his contact vanishes and nobody even acknowledges his existence. Stymied beyond belief, Stiller tries desperately to find answers. This involves numerous trips into Simulacron, assassination attempts and a romantic entanglement or two.

Fassbinder made World on a Wire when he was 27 and it remains his only work of science fiction. It was filmed on 16mm in just 44 days while the director was on hiatus producing Effi Briest. Fassbinder died in 1982 at the age of 36, but he made movies at a frenetic pace and began creating when he was 22. World on a Wire is not the most well-known of his pictures, but it is one of his most unique.

Fassbinder’s picture is deeply philosophical and thoughtful. The science fiction backdrop has given many opportunities to question the nature of reality, of course, and considerations about who (or where) we really are have been made rather frequent bedfellows of magical viewing screens and simulated humans. World on a Wire questions what makes us human and alludes to Plato, Descartes and Aristotle in the process.

As science fiction goes, World on a Wire is unfussy. There are no flying cars or robots or laser beams. There are mirrors, video phones, and video monitors, tools of the trade for a film that spends the majority of its time inside a facility called IKZ. Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus, his director of photography, show us a world that is illusory and reflective. Characters show up as their reflections, while others have their faces obscured with mirrors.

There is not much by way of emotion in World on a Wire and the profound sense of detachment makes it a little difficult to get into the minds of the characters. At the same time, Fassbinder’s use of distancing mechanisms certainly does seem to play a role in creating a sense of confusion as to their respective realities. We’re never convinced as to what’s “real,” so we must adhere to our best guesses – even when the mirror leads us astray.

The Criterion Collection DVD release of World on a Wire is a two-DVD special edition. It includes the film in German with English subtitles and a new digital transfer that was supervised by Fassbinder’s director of photography on the picture.

There is a 50-minute documentary about the making of the film and an interview with German film scholar Gerd Gemünden. As is usually the case with Criterion Collection special edition releases, the booklet is impressive and features an essay from film critic Ed Halter.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • Interesting you would be reviewing this. Just saw it yesterday, the two parts, on Hulu Plus.

    Apart from the subject matter, what struck me more than anything is the overbearing German psyche, how different it is from the the rest of the West.

    I’m certain the film would have been quite different at the hands of an American director.