Nether Regions: 07.26.11: World on a Wire
Posted by Chad Webb on 07.27.2011
This week's article focuses on the rare and newly resurrected two-part science-fiction epic from German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. If you enjoyed The Matrix or Blade Runner, this gem precedes those by decades...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
WORLD ON A WIRE
Starring: Klaus Lowitsch, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau Directed By: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Written By: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Fritz Muller-Schertz (based on Daniel F. Galouye's novel) Running Time: 205 minutes Original Air Date: October 14, 1973 (West Germany) Missing Since: Never Released on Region 1 DVD Existing Formats:Region 2 DVD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
Last year, after it had been missing for decades, a new print of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire, a two-part film he made for German television in 1973, emerged at the Berlin Film Festival and was eventually landed briefly at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I regretted the fact that I could not see it then, but thankfully Janus films and the IFC Center have put this science-fiction mini-series back into at at least one theater for another run. Since Criterion has been reporting about the showtimes on Facebook and Twitter, hopefully fans will have a chance to view this on DVD in the future.
Barbara Valentin as the seductive siren Gloria Fromm.
German born auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder was someone whom studios today would both adore and loathe. He was a tireless worker, completing 3-4 four projects per year, taking normally from nine to twenty days to wrap shooting. He knew his crew very well, was accustomed to shooting on low budgets, and was knowledgeable on every aspect of the production process. Because of this, he won many government grants that allowed him to continue making films and was a significant contributor to the New German Cinema movement. However, his primary flaw was mixing his personal and professional lives, both of which were defined by constant scandal and controversy. He was attacked by just about every group you can think of, from homosexuals to Marxists. Often times he made the situation worse by the way he presented himself or the comments he made. Think Lars von Trier.
World on a Wire was made amidst the first portion of his career, which reflects his theater background. It is a three and a half hour experience, but never dull as it contains action, comedy, and thought-provoking insights on simulated realities. The story follows Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), who is promoted to technical director at the IKZ Institute (Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung – "Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology"). He was the assistant to Dr. Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), who died under mysterious circumstances while working on a state-sponsored computer project called the Simulacron, which creates an artificial world where "identity units" live as humans unaware that they are merely circuits. Stiller is elected as the most capable person to continue on Simulacron, but soon he too begins to get headaches and engages in frequent arguments with IKZ's sinister head honcho, Herbert Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau).
The Chief of Security, Geunther Lause (Ivan Desny), warns Stiller than he does not feel Vollmer's death was an accident, but Lause quickly disappears without a trace and subsequently no one remembers he ever existed. Stiller's sanity is then questioned the more he mentions Lause's name due to the fact that everyone believes Hans Edelkern has occupied the Chief of Security post for years. Even Dr. Vollmer's daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben) disappears and then shockingly reappears. Meanwhile, Siskins has made a deal with the United Steel Company in relation to Simulacron, which Stiller vehemently objects to. As his progressively bizarre behavior raises the eyebrows of everyone around him, the scientist turns into a detective as he realizes that something is terribly wrong.
Stiller suffering one of his frequent splitting headaches.
It might surprise some of you to know that World on a Wire pre-dates more popular efforts like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ by decades and concerns similar subject matter. Although Ridley Scott and the Wachowski brothers' films have their merits, I found Fassbinder's quirky exploration of various realities more satisfying on an intellectual level. This would later be remade as the inferior dud The Thirteenth Floor, an obvious example of missing the point entirely. Fassbinder recalls the stylish energy of Godard's Alphaville by making World on a Wire a visually arresting, slick, and colorful adventure from start to finish. It was filmed at building developments and shopping malls in Paris, mainly for the architecture, but also because it was a nice escape from Germany for the helmer. The director is also unabashed when integrating salutes to his own mentors, whether it be Kubrick or Hitchcock. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who collaborated with Fassbinder for the fourth time at this point, supervised the restoration of this picture. The 35mm print is wonderful on the big screen (it was shot on 16mm), well worth the time and money.
Fred Stiller's Klaus Lowitsch is a screwy lead character, but enthralling all the same. He guides us through this Chinese puzzle-box with an overwhelmed, deliciously unstable, deadpan sort of charm. Initially, it comes off like his promotion is not the dream come true he wanted. Karl Heinz Vosgerau's marvelous schemester Herbert Siskins dolls up the higher position by asking Fred to pick any type of car in the world. His reply is a Corvette, and soon we see him driving around in a gorgeous white Stingray. The men and women who inhabit Fassbinder's "worlds" are clothed in either powerful business suits or classy dresses as if they stepped out a flick from the 50's or an episode of Mad Men. Chain smoking and the steady flow of booze included. The set design compliments the film-noir atmosphere with bright furniture, transparent glass constructed offices, and flourishes that are only vaguely futuristic. Many characters give blank stares to the camera, hinting at what is to come. The females will all strike you as femme fatales. Mascha Rabben's exquisite Eva is the most enigmatic of the lot. This piece is saturated with subtle and sporadically exaggerated touches, whether it be from a performance or a prop, that are sufficient indication that this universe is alien to the viewer. In one scene, topless nightclub dancers are seen oogling all over muscular black men in skimpy white outfits. At random times, men will have full red lipstick on. One of the most memorable characters, IKZ's psychologist, Fritz Walfang, exhibits a distinctive beard and always has a pipe in his mouth.
Fassbinder, and his director of photography (Ballhaus), stage the action with a determined but playful brilliance. Take Vollmer's death, where he forebodingly says to Lause "I know something you don't," which is followed by him departing the room and the camera zooming out from the location they were sitting. His actual demise is only fleetingly observed, catching our interest and provoking speculation as to what we saw. Stiller's trips into the simulated world are suspenseful and exciting. The conclusion of part 1 and the majority of part 2 is filled with thrilling moments, including Stiller fighting with a "digital unit" from the simulated world, explosions, and chases. The amount of noteworthy sequences are endless. Early in the story, Stiller asks an admiring dame for a lighter, and she responds that she does not smoke. Shortly thereafter, someone tries to drop a skid of concrete blocks on him. He jumps out of the way in the most over the top manner possible, but the woman is not so lucky. She is crushed, but Stiller stands up, dusts himself off, and notices that she did have a lighter. He takes it, and walks away as if that happens daily. There is also the superb recurring joke where Stiller is attempting to unearth the secret contact inside the simulated world, yet whenever he accuses someone, they confess to being the contact for something totally different.
Shady IKZ boss Herbert Siskins with right-hand man Mark Holm.
World on a Wire explores numerous themes, but what makes this unique offering so remarkable is that they are all still relevant and fresh today. The power hungry and greedy Siskins wheeling and dealing with a steel corporation so they can manipulate the business, map out specific patterns, and maximize profits is an example of how such technology can be used for nefarious purposes. This sub-plot is reaffirmed time and time again by an ambitious newspaper reporter, portrayed by Ulli Lommel (Director of The Boogeyman), who incessantly suspects the motives behind Simulacron. There is also the message that human traits, personalities, and overall behavior are being "programmed" into us. The escalating sense of paranoia as Stiller sinks deeper into the mystery is electrifying and keeps the audience off-kilter. Fassbinder provides equal measure of doubt and sympathy with Stiller's plight. Is he truly crazy, or has he stumbled onto a greater conspiracy? Philosophy is also tossed in, such as the fabulous comparisons to Aristotle, Descartes, and the insertion of a drawing alluding to Zeno's paradox, along with "Achilles and the tortoise." All of these complexities are intricately assimilated throughout the labyrinthine, yet balanced and clever script. It could have been mind-numbingly confusing, but that is hardly the case.
Occasionally the idiosyncrasies and general weirdness of World on a Wire overcomes the conversational topics it raises. Furthermore, the major twist, especially for those who have seen many of the titles this inspired, will not come as a huge revelation. But this is a minor drawback in a captivating maze of a film that has so much to offer in one sitting. I adored Fassbinder and Ballhaus' inventive shots and audacious mise en scene, such as peering down an enclosed ladder as Stiller swiftly descends, or the constant use of mirrors and reflections. All of this reinforces Fassbinder trademark irony and the foreshadowing will only make repeated viewings increasingly rewarding. The electronic score from Gottfriend Hungsberg serves to underline the 70's modernist settings. It is tough to criticize World on a Wire after all these years for the utilization of any clichés because it created many of them, while simultaneously avoiding regular pitfalls of the period. It might not be flawless, but it is groundbreaking. The ending to World on a Wire was not expected, at least for me, but that does not make it unfulfilling necessarily, just startlingly tidy for a story that was embraced an organized chaos.
The list of movies that have spawned from this could go on and on. Here are a few more: Avatar, Inception, Paprika, Total Recall, Dark City, Avalon and quite possibly the television series Lost. Make sure to keep an eye out for this title in the future, or to better prepare, check out any of Fassbinder's available films.