Stiller manages a perfectly realistic virtual-reality simulator set in the future so government (and increasingly, industry) can make predictive policies. And about ten minutes into the three and a half-hour movie I realized that Stiller is himself a fictional character inside a virtual reality. I knew this because I’ve seen science fiction before, and the story was seeming familiar – turns out it’s based on the same source novel as The Thirteenth Floor. Fortunately, Stiller figures this out at the halfway point, after obsessing over an erased security chief whom only he can remember, so we’ve got the whole second half (episode – this was a TV miniseries) to deal with this info. More fortunately, there’s no slow grinding of the plot gears as the characters slowly realize something that I already know, because the film is 100% fun to watch, even while being obvious. Fassbinder has found a way to make low-budget, no-effects TV sci-fi look terrific, covering every surface with mirrors and windows and screens (you catch sight of the camera crew pretty often – another fun game), creeping around corners with his Ruizian camera (with sparing use of the requisite 70’s zooms) and playing with perspective. With this and Sam Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street being my only touchstones, I have to assume that mid-70’s German television was amazing.
Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch of Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron), the shortest person in the movie, is taking over the project because his predecessor/father-figure Vollmer has unexpectedly suicided. Vollmer’s daughter Eva, Stiller’s main squeeze, has grown distant, the corporate project head (Stiller’s boss) Siskins is becoming more demanding, and Stiller’s new secretary Fromm (Fassbinder regular Barbara Valentin) is obviously a spy, implanted to keep Stiller abreast of the situation.
Stiller gets more impertinent, programs a singing, tap-dancing version of his boss into the simulacrum. He goes on the run after his mid-movie revelation, realizing that Vollmer was killed for finding out the same thing. Eva reappears, says she’s from the real world, that Vollmer never had a daughter until she programmed herself in a few days before, that they have many virtual worlds but this one captured attention for being the only one that created its own sub-virtual-world. And since the real Eva is in love with the virtual Stiller, she helps him escape by swapping psyches with someone outside.
Eva and Stiller trying to pull a Minority Report pose:
I liked the electronic music, daring for 1973, but sometimes the bonkers, intense squeals which occur when Stiller is troubled would make Ash upset. I also like that you can have fully naked women on German television. Don’t know much about Fassbinder, assumed he’s kinda Nick Ray meets Doug Sirk meets Sam Fuller meets Hedwig, based on my decade-ago half-rememberance of watching The Marriage of Maria Braun.
Stiller being told that he’s a fictional character:
Stiller sneaks into a theater while on the run from the law, watches what appears to be based on the last few minutes of Dishonored:
Nashville Scene rightly calls it “a film that feels somehow inevitable in your viewing, a missing link that should have been there all along.”
Another key reference for World on a Wire is Jean-Luc Godard’s own lone foray into sci-fi, 1965’s Alphaville. Much like Godard’s film, World generates a futurescape from the present mostly by judicious selection. Abandoned building sites, freeways and glass skyscrapers, it seems, are forever. (In the final moments of World, Fassbinder completes the homage as Alphaville’s star, Eddie Constantine, makes a cameo appearance.)
Despite not actually being an adaptation of a Dick fiction, World on a Wire has more in common with the wry mordancy of Dick’s work than many official Dick adaptations, not least in the way that it shows each of its three nested worlds as being equally drab. We actually see very little of the world “below” (the world inside the Simulacron) and almost nothing of the world “above” (the world one level up from what we first took to be reality). The world below we see only in snatched glimpses of hotel lobbies and inside a lorry driver’s cab. But it is the revelation—or non-revelation—of the world above at the climax of the film that is most startling. Instead of some Gnostic transfiguration, we find ourselves in what looks like a meeting room in some ultra-banal office block. At first, the electronic blinds are down, momentarily holding open the possibility that there will be some marvelous—or at least strange—world to be seen once they are up. But when they do eventually rise, we see only the same grey skies and city- scape.
Vollmer, just before his death: