A Bold Vision, Still Ahead of Its Time
IT is perhaps inevitable that we are still catching up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who worked practically at the speed of thought and who died of a drug overdose in 1982 at 37, leaving behind more than 40 films. “World on a Wire,” an obscure two-part television movie he made in 1973, is a textbook example of a film that was ahead of its time. Head-trip cinema about virtual-reality immersions, it’s an analog-age “Avatar,” a movie that anticipates “Blade Runner” in its meditation on artificial and human intelligence and “The Matrix” in its conception of reality as a computer-generated illusion.
Since its broadcast on German television in October 1973, “World on a Wire” has gone largely unseen. Digitally restored by the Fassbinder Foundation under the supervision of its original cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, a spiffed-up version of the three-and-a-half-hour film had its premiere in February at the Berlin Film Festival. Before that — according to Juliane Lorenz, Fassbinder’s longtime editor and the president of the Fassbinder Foundation — it had been shown on the big screen only a handful of times, at retrospectives in the ’90s. The film is set to receive its first ever theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from April 14 through 19.
Adapted from “Simulacron-3,” a 1964 novel by Daniel F. Galouye, “World on a Wire” revolves around a cybernetics corporation that has created a miniature world populated with “identity units” unaware that they are being controlled from above. Toggling between dimensions, a researcher (Klaus Lowitsch) learns that what he has always known as the real world may itself be a simulation. This is the brand of existential horror that Philip K. Dick perfected (notably in “Time Out of Joint”) but that took off cinematically only in the late ’90s, in a subgenre that the writer Joshua Clover, in his book on “The Matrix,” terms “edge of the construct.” (Among the other movies in this cluster are “The Truman Show” and “The Thirteenth Floor,” another adaptation of “Simulacron-3,” for which Mr. Ballhaus was an executive producer.)
“We knew almost nothing about computers,” said Fritz Muller-Scherz, who wrote “World on a Wire” with Fassbinder. “But Rainer and I were fascinated by the question, If there are other artificial worlds, how can a real world even exist?”
The notion of Fassbinder tackling science fiction might seem strange given the extent to which his films are embedded in social and historical realities. More than any other figure of the New German Cinema, he insisted on showing what his countrymen failed to see or refused to remember, whether in a forbidden-love melodrama like “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974) or in his women’s pictures set during Germany’s postwar economic miracle, like “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979). But from the start Fassbinder was also taken with the subversive potential of genre filmmaking. “Love Is Colder Than Death” (1969) and “The American Soldier” (1970) are both gangster-movie riffs. “Whity” (1971), about a black slave in 19th-century America, is a pointedly revisionist western.
Science fiction is a ready-made sandbox for a filmmaker who never stopped wondering what it means to be human. “His main themes were all present: power, dependence, exploitation, manipulation,” Mr. Muller-Scherz said. The difference in “World on a Wire” is that the mind games play out not within an interpersonal context but on a cosmic scale.
Replete with chases and explosions, “World on a Wire” was conceived as cerebral entertainment. “We wanted to make a suspenseful film,” Mr. Muller-Scherz said, “but also one that would convey the seriousness of these scary ideas.” He added that he and Fassbinder had responded strongly to “the idea that we were remote-controlled in many ways.” The back cover copy on the original Bantam paperback hypes “Simulacron-3” as “a shattering picture of our world in the very near future, when Madison Avenue and the public opinion pollsters take over!” While the story predicts the rise of behavioral modeling as a capitalist tool, Fassbinder, born mere weeks after the German surrender in World War II, probably also had in mind the not-so-distant history of fascist social control.
While some interiors were filmed in Germany, Fassbinder found his dystopian urban landscapes in Paris. As Jean-Luc Godard had done with “Alphaville” (1965), Fassbinder used the city’s new architecture — underground shopping malls, hulking concrete high-rises — to suggest an ominous future world.
With a budget of 900,000 Deutschmarks (more than $300,000 at the time) and a 44-day shoot, “World on a Wire” was a large production by Fassbinder’s standards, although it was hardly the only project demanding his attention. He would shoot three more films in 1973 (including “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”). The script was knocked out over six weekends in Paris, Mr. Muller-Scherz recalled, at a “crummy little bistro” where he and Fassbinder would take breaks from writing with rounds of pinball. During the week, they were in Bochum, Germany, splitting their time between a stage production with the director Peter Zadek and the set of “The Tenderness of Wolves,” a vampire movie directed by Ulli Lommel and written by Kurt Raab, both veterans of the Fassbinder company.
“World on a Wire” marks an evolutionary leap in the partnership between Fassbinder and Mr. Ballhaus, who shot 15 Fassbinder films before going on to a Hollywood career with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. While the Fassbinder films of the early ’70s have an almost theatrical flatness, the layered compositions and sinuous camera moves of “World on a Wire” anticipate hyperstylized later collaborations like “Chinese Roulette” (1976).
Mr. Ballhaus worked with Mr. Raab — who has a small role in “World on a Wire” and (as on most early Fassbinder films) handled the art direction — to outfit the chicly furnished locations with mirrors and glass objects. “They were important for a story where you never know what’s real or what’s a reflection,” Mr. Ballhaus said. Fassbinder’s love of mirrors as décor and alienation devices, inherited from his idol Douglas Sirk, reaches a dizzying peak in “World on a Wire.” Almost every shot features at least one mirror image; faces and bodies are reflected in tabletops, refracted through lamps, caught between infinity mirrors.
The constantly panning and tracking camera, which must often capture an actor’s reflection while avoiding its own, suggests painstaking preparation, but Fassbinder worked as he always did. He stayed away from the locations until the last possible moment, according to Mr. Ballhaus. The most byzantine maneuvers were devised on the spot. “I always had my own ideas,” Mr. Ballhaus said, “but he would usually think about it and come up with a better idea.”
By all accounts it was an untroubled shoot. Productivity was never an issue with Fassbinder, but the confusion between on- and off-camera drama could be. “It was a catastrophe when he let his private life get an upper hand,” said Mr. Lommel, who plays a snooping journalist in “World on a Wire.” “But I never saw him as disciplined as on this movie.”
Which isn’t to say it was all work all the time. The entourage spent most nights at a club called Alcazar, Fassbinder’s favorite Paris haunt, which is featured in a few scenes. Mr. Lowitsch (who died in 2002) pulled off an intense, often physical role despite being, as Mr. Lommel put it, “never not drunk.”
“It was his way of dealing with the pressure,” said Mr. Lommel, who was assigned to be Mr. Lowitsch’s chaperone and drinking buddy. Mr. Lommel said that he soon grew tired of the nightly benders — they often went straight from the bars to the set — but was instructed by Fassbinder to persist for the sake of the film.
Fassbinder did not rank “World on a Wire” among the Top 10 of his own movies (he was a compulsive list maker), but it seemed to be of some significance to him. In his notes for one of his most personal films, “In a Year of 13 Moons” (1978), a response to an ex-lover’s suicide, Fassbinder describes a scene (which never made it into the movie) in which the protagonist is reduced to tears while reading a novel about parallel realities called “Worlds on Wires.” Mr. Lommel said that the last time they spoke, in 1981, Fassbinder mentioned his hope that “World on a Wire” would one day be released as a movie.
The recent Berlin premiere of the restoration, presided over by Ms. Lorenz, was attended by Mr. Ballhaus, Mr. Muller-Scherz and many of the surviving cast members, including Gunter Lamprecht, Ingrid Caven and Mr. Lommel. The evening felt both like a reunion and a truce, with the various factions of Fassbinder associates that have recently feuded over his legacy setting aside their differences to honor a major rediscovery.
If anyone could get the old clan back together it would, of course, be the puppet master himself, still controlling his world on a wire. “You could say the film was a parallel to the Fassbinder universe,” Mr. Muller-Scherz said. “We were all collaborators who were emotionally dependent on each other.”
by Dennis Lim
The New York Times, April 4, 2010