There are movies that make news and movies that are news. World on a Wire is one of the latter. A virtually unknown, newly restored, 1973 two-part telefilm directed by long-gone wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the height of his powers, World on a Wire is getting a limited theatrical release thanks to Janus Films.
World on a Wire is Fassbinder's most sustained genre riff. Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 sci-fi novel Simulacron-3 and predicated on the notion of a computer-generated reality populated by "identity units" who believe themselves human, the movie looks back at The Creation of the Humanoids, forward to The Matrix, and directly at Fassbinder's notoriously cultlike power over his acting ensemble. One scientist jokingly characterizes the identity units as performers: "They're like the people dancing on TV for us."
Fassbinder made World on a Wire immediately after his art-film breakthrough, Effi Briest, and, abetted by many of his regular actors, the 27-year-old filmmaker seemed eager to re-establish his punk bona fides. As wildly ambitious as it is cinephilic, World on a Wire mixes the pop art effrontery of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville with the cyberphobic metaphysics of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (to name the two movies most bluntly referenced) while remaining wholly Fassbinderian in its insolently lugubrious ironies. Less characteristic, if equally deadpan, are the choreographed action sequence — notably the lurking crane that threatens to dump a load of debris on the movie's angst-ridden protagonist (Klaus Löwitsch).
A power-elite conspiracy yarn played out on two levels of reality — virtual and real, both suffused with free-floating paranoia — World on a Wire hardly lacks for narrative. But its meaning is largely delivered via an economical yet stylish mise-en-scène. This is corporate hell — the blandly futuristic, neon-lit look leans heavily on molded plastic furniture and ubiquitous TV monitors. (That the men are uniformly dressed in power suits and the women as Barbies may remind some of Mad Men.) Strategically placed mirrors suggest the character's illusory or divided nature, while the alienated performances — alternately declamatory and uninflected — as well as Fassbinder's Warholian deployment of actors stolidly hanging out in frame, encourage the thought that the real world, too, is rife with "identity units."
A bit of a slog at 205 minutes, World on a Wire builds up to a satisfyingly nutty finale — as the identity units grow restless, their virtual world begins to develop certain glitches. One conceit worthy of Philip K. Dick is the shrink whose job is to treat simulation neurosis (although Fassbinder is also an artist who loves a good nervous breakdown, the more baroque the better). With "The Blue Danube Waltz" and Tristan and Isolde periodically erupting out of Gottfried Hüngsberg's impressively ominous score, World on a Wire is almost a literal space opera. There are frequent verbal arias—one character ranting while everyone else goes blank — and the action is further enlivened, or rather rendered provocatively entropic, by intermittent cabaret acts. (Mainly, chanteuse Ingrid Caven doing her Dietrich impersonation while people dance in their underwear as if underwater.)
It's remarkable how current it all seems. The movie's mod furnishings, dated in 1973, have been several times revived and are currently in vogue. Its last 45 minutes have a computer-game logic that anticipates David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Mamoru Oshii's Avalon. And the improbably romantic ending is pure 21st century — who would have imagined Fassbinder an avatar of Avatar?