Full of Power, Despair, Brutality, and Anarchy
Rainer Werner Fassbinder died 25 years ago: A reunion with his prophetic science fiction movie “World on a Wire”
It’s bizarre, but many people know the title: “World on a Wire.” They even know that Rainer Werner Fassbinder is its director. Yet, it is almost impossible to see this movie today; it was never released in movie theaters. And since 1973 it has been kept in the archives of the German National TV station WDR. In recent years, it was rarely aired, and there is no DVD of “World on a Wire:” the Fassbinder-Foundation still negotiates the rights. This is a real scandal, especially since “World on a Wire” is probably the best German science-fiction-movie since Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Anyone lucky enough to have studied the 206 minutes in a video recording will comprehend – in a nutshell – the “Fassbinder System.” Fascinatingly, his particular ‘regime’ keeps the director’s oeuvre alive, although he died a quarter century ago at the age of just 37.
Factor number one: Fassbinder’s obvious instinct for stories and topics. “World on a Wire” is based on a novel by US-author Daniel F. Galouye. Originally published in 1964, it was issued in Germany in the 1970s as a paperback by Goldmann publishers. The focal point is a gigantic computer that enables people to program artificial worlds and populate them with artificial creatures. Fassbinder did all this at a time when computers did not yet play a major role in people’s lives; the everyday was not yet influenced by chips, PCs, or parallel worlds in the sense of “Second Life.” He sees the existentialist issue hidden in the highly charged subject matter: Advanced technology makes possible a world that can create a different, artificial world. And the world cannot be certain that it is not simply the product of a gigantic computer. In other words: The topic that so effectively turned the 1999-Hollywood movie “Matrix” into a pop subject was already on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s radar in 1973.
Creative Data Processors
Factor number two: Fassbinder concentrates on the figures and their inner existence. The pace of “World on a Wire” is of course totally different from “Matrix.” Fassbinder really only deals in passing with the elements of action, brawls, or chases that Galouye outlines in his novel. He is much more interested in inner conflicts. He wants to know what is going on in the head of the computer expert whose mentor committed suicide under mysterious circumstances and whose own life shows increasing signs of odd peculiarities. The computer expert begins to suspect that the world surrounding him could possibly be not real and that he might ultimately be but a digitally fabricated creature, the product of a gigantic computer simulation.
One of the things that make Fassbinder movies fascinating to this day are such characters, with their reality and their unwillingness to compromise. In contrast to many of his 1970s politicized film-director contemporaries whose figures tended to be only vehicles for concepts and ideas (this is why the films in question appear so antiquated today) Fassbinder’s figures always act in the here and now. They are full of power, despair, brutality, and anarchy. While the characters cause cruel injuries, they are at the same time dreadfully vulnerable. One hardly ever feels that they stick to a script in their actions. And one almost always fears for them from the beginning.
Factor number three: Fassbinder’s grandiose actors; in “World on a Wire,” they include Barbara Valentin, GünterLamprecht, Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Gottfried John, Ulli Lommel. It is only natural that without his entourage – they were tied together in all-encompassing, all-consuming, passionate and circuitous ways – he would have been unable to work. Added to this group were other select actors he recruited from the regular TV roster – another characteristic feature of his work – where they were notoriously exploited and underpaid. Klaus Löwitsch, the lead, is computer expert Fred Stiller. And it is doubtful that he ever gave a performance as superb as in “World on a Wire.” Usually he played only edgy, powerful, permanently over-the-top yet smart characters. In Germany he was the quintessential macho guy. Or take Karl-Heinz Vosgerau: At the time already with slightly grey hair, his striking head in plaid jacket and turtleneck was simply that – striking. In his late work of the 1980s, this Vosgerau was doomed to appear in such serials as “Schwarzwaldklinik” or “Guldenburgs.” In “World on a Wire,” however, he is the institute’s dubious director whose only goal it is, with the aid of this new technology, to service capitalists hooked to their profits. This is frighteningly real. What Fassbinder is capable of getting from his actors never ceases to be miraculous. Yet, it is also easy to envision the price: hurtful insults, painful affronts. It is hardly surprising, then, that even 25 years after the master’s death there are still ongoing battles between some of the survivors. One recent focus is the issue to what degree the Fassbinder Foundation deals adequately with his artistic heritage. The yellow press quickly refers to a “Zickenkrieg” (bitches’ battle). A more appropriate phrase would be long-term consequences of severe neurosis.
Factor number four: Fassbinder’s desire for staging. “World on a Wire” is a Gesamtkunstwerk. In many of the extreme close-ups, Fassbinder makes use of the picturesque colors and shapes of 1970s-design to create his fundamentally artificial atmosphere. Each location is associated with specific music, ranging from electronically manipulated Bach to a Greek sirtaky and a tango played by an orchestra. His director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, encircles the actors with adventurous tracking shots. There is glass all over the place, and plenty of mirrors offer new perspectives. The viewer can never be certain whether he sees the actual figures or yet another, more or less broken mirror image.
Added to this all is the performers’ language: artificial shyness expressed in the Fassbinder-tone, at times cranky, somewhat cool or pathos-filled, there is always this artificiality in their speech. One fascinating aspect of his films that many did not comprehend when they saw them in the 1970s is the fact that their seeming exaltation gives them a timeless air. This decade’s pseudo-realism never achieved ageless qualities. Melodrama as the basic perspective of our existence was possibly never more plausible than it is today. And maybe, therefore, “World on a Wire” was never more plausible than just now?
Existential Jump Upwards
Factor number five: Hope. No matter how drab the action, there is no Fassbinder movie without at least one minor utopian angle. In “World on a Wire,” it is the love of a female technician from the real world that ultimately helps the computer specialist from the fake world to make an existentialist jump upwards, at least mentally. Although he is shot by machine guns in the simulation and he collapses mortally wounded, the camera moves upward and ends showing a frozen image of a computer game during recess. In another location, (the seemingly real) Fred Stiller in a new body, is full of euphoria and touches the hair, face and breast of his (seemingly real) lover while he gazes in excitement towards the opening blinds and sees the (seemingly real) world outside. That’s beautiful: One often cries a little at the end of a Fassbinder movie. But is it really true? Can one person love another one knowing that his mind was once only computed? And is the real world outside the window indeed real? This is factor number six: Fassbinder movies are never over. They continue in our heads. No end titles. Not really.
by Tim Schleider
Stuttgarter Zeitung, June 9th, 2007