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Film

World on a Wire

A lost Fassbinder sci-fi film returns to the screen, here in the future where it belongs

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World on a Wire

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Screens Dec. 10, 12, and 15 at the Charles Theatre as part of its revival series

There is nothing quite so quaint as a past vision of the future—for the clothes and tech alone, if not for the naive concerns. And to be sure, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire hails from the days when filmmakers looking to depict the future simply hauled their cameras over to the newest building in town and set their characters loose among the modernist glass, Brutalist concrete, and bright orange amoebic chairs. The security forces here also sport noir-ish trench coats and fedoras à la Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (whose Eddie Constantine makes a cameo). But Fassbinder’s film, originally shot as a three-and-a-half-hour two-part miniseries for German television and all but unseen for more than three decades until a restored print was struck last year, can’t be dismissed as naive. Fassbinder’s vision of the then near future might be garish and faintly ridiculous, with its space-helmet computer headgear and swooping white Corvettes, but his deployment of these retro trappings in his mise-en-scène is impeccable, as usual. And his version of the story first told in Daniel Galouye’s 1963 novel Simulacron-3 is nothing to snicker at.

In the world of World on a Wire, a tech firm has created a simulated world inside a computer, full of thousands of tiny artificially intelligent “identity units” who believe they and their world are real, and plans to use it to predict societal trends—reactions to political moves, say, or future transit growth. But project manager Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hover) mutters about dark, catastrophic secrets involved in the program before suddenly dying. Security head Lause (Ivan Desny) informs Vollmer’s friend and associate Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) of Vollmer’s concerns shortly before Lause himself disappears so completely that no one except Stiller remembers him. Promising Vollmer’s daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben) that he’ll get to the truth about her father’s death, Stiller takes over the project, known as Simulacron, just as one of the identity units commits suicide.

Journeying into the simulation itself (styled a bit like an old hotel lobby), Stiller meets Einstein (Gottfried John), the real world’s point of contact with the simulated world and the only identity unit who knows that the latter isn’t real. Einstein, it turns out, doesn’t carry this knowledge easily and is desperate to escape “up”—as Stiller’s colleague Walfang (Günter Lamprecht) puts it, “No one can stand to know they’re artificial.” What Stiller learns, and comes to suspect, plunges him into a conspiracy that puts him on the run and winds up threatening his life and his sanity.

For all its wide lapels and Rube Goldberg tech, World on a Wire is essentially the same story told in The Matrix, a draft from the beginning of the age in which the capabilities of new tech began to inspire epistemological uncertainty about life in the machine age. Fassbinder’s version of this idea stands out from its formative materials thanks to its sociopolitical aspect: The conspiracy Stiller finds himself facing involves the government (which funds Simulacron) and a big steel company that wants access to Simulacron’s prognostications. The venal angle of government and business teaming up to profit from and distort reality is more depressingly plausible than a vast AI construct, and far better suited for Fassbinder’s savage swipes.

There are aspects of World on a Wire that suffer in their execution—Löwitsch isn’t much of a man of action, and he and Fassbinder deliver perhaps the most inept escaping-from-an-imminent-explosion sequence in cinema history—but above all it’s worth seeing for the director’s take on his material, from the budget opulence and saturated colors to the 360-degree pans and 300-degree circular tracking shots. For every banal depiction of the future, there’s something else uncannily genuine in its strangeness—most notably the pneumatic secretary Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin), a presence in the Simulacron offices so watchful and impassive that she seems like some sort of construct herself. Fassbinder makes nearly every frame count in building his world, using shiny surfaces, refractions, and endless mirrors (at least one in almost every scene) to visually reinforce the themes of doubling and distortion. A shot of one of the Simulacron staffers peering through a fish tank as goldfish wriggle by his face, de facto ruler over a fake environment filled with tiny unknowing creatures, is later echoed in a shot of a car window in the bottom of a river. A mynah bird, one of nature’s natural-born fakers, makes an appearance at a critical point. Fassbinder was stuck in the ’70s here and didn’t live out the ’80s, but he was clearly way ahead of his time.

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