• World on a Wire: The Hall of Mirrors

    By Ed Halter


    Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s only work of science fiction, World on a Wire (1973) is surely one of the most obscure items among the forty-odd titles that constitute his filmography. Originally a two-part miniseries broad­cast on West German television, it had been screened theatrically only a few times before its reemergence in 2010, following a digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. The story was adapted from the 1964 novel Simulacron-3, by American author Daniel F. Galouye, about a corpora­tion that manufactures a supercomputer used to generate thousands of “identity units,” or humanlike constructs built from digital information, which are ren­dered with such complexity that they believe themselves and their artificial world to be real. Galouye’s book is among the earliest extended treatments of what would come to be known as virtual reality; perhaps its only novel­istic precedent is Time out of Joint (1959), by Philip K. Dick, who would go on to build a literary career ponder­ing the paranoid-existential ramifications of manufactured consciousness. Today, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire seems equally prescient. It delves into dystopian, P. K. Dickian themes that would be explored in numer­ous films in years to come, most notably Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), as well as second-tier fare like The Lawnmower Man (1992) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999), the latter title being another take on Simulacron-3, with World on a Wire’s cine­ma­tographer, Michael Ballhaus, as executive producer.

    Fassbinder directed World on a Wire at age twenty-seven, seven years into the notoriously breakneck production streak that would end only with his early death in 1982. It was shot on 16 mm in forty-four days, during a hiatus from the production of Effi Briest (1974), and he would finish three other films that year: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Martha, and Nora Helmer (the last two for television). The cast is populated with Fassbinder regulars, among them Klaus Löwitsch, in the lead role of researcher Fred Stiller; Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, as Stiller’s snakish colleague Siskins; Barbara Valentin and Margit Carstensen, as Stiller’s secretaries; Adrian Hoven, as Simulacron’s doomed inventor, Henry Vollmer; Mascha Rab­ben, as Vollmer’s alluring daughter, Eva; and Ulli Lommel and Ingrid Caven, as journalists investigating Simulacron’s ties to corporate interests.

    Most of the film takes place in the offices of IKZ, the Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung, or Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology. With Ballhaus and production designer Kurt Raab (who appears in a bit role as an IKZ employee), Fassbinder envi­­sions the institute as a veritable maze of reflected images, furnished in decadent late-modernist luxe: banks of mirrors and shimmering decora­tive panels positioned behind white leather couches, silver-topped tables covered with sparkling glassware and see-through sculptures, replicas of Greek statuary perched upon mirrored pedestals. In one scene, Stiller rests his head on his polished desk, doubling his face, while his secretary Maya (Carstensen) looks on from behind a transparent partition, her hands held up against the glass, reminiscent of the iconic still of Maya Deren from her Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)—another film vertiginously structured around reflections and doppelgängers. Mirrors and glass would become Fass­binder’s most recognizable visual motifs, recurring throughout his films, but his penchant for glossy surfaces would never again be taken to such an extreme. Even the exteriors, shot on location in Paris, revel in the cheap gleam of molded plastic chairs and shopping-mall windows.

    Low-budget by sci-fi standards and bereft of special effects, the film can be placed in a slender tradition of science fiction made within European art cinema that includes Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1963), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). In each of these cases, the desire to present a vision of a world unlike our own is realized by the director’s pushing into new levels of formal experimentation (and like Alphaville, World on a Wire signals futurity through the most alien­ating elements of contemporary design). Fassbinder’s pessimism about technology, however, remains in step with Hollywood science fiction of the 1970s too; for example, 1973 also saw the release of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green and Michael Crichton’s Westworld.

    The look of World on a Wire was influenced by Fassbinder’s admiration for Douglas Sirk, who deployed mirrors as visual punctuation for his emotion­ally labyrinthine melodramas. World on a Wire was one of Fassbinder’s first flowerings of Sirkian style, adapted to an unlikely genre. Sirk was on Fassbinder’s mind at this time: in an essay published in 1971, Fassbinder cites his use of mirrors many times, writing that “Sirk has said you can’t make films about some­thing, you can only make films with something—with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, with all these crazy things that make it worth­while.” Sirk also once remarked that “the mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are; it shows you your own opposite.” Vollmer introduces a similar idea about the artificiality of identity in one of World on a Wire’s earliest scenes, holding a pocket mirror up to a visiting government official and saying, “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Here, Fassbinder has expanded Sirk’s metaphorical use of mirrors into something akin to Cocteau’s in his fantastical The Blood of a Poet (1930), creating a looking-glass world in which we’re not sure which side of the reflection we’re on.

    Mirrors, however, are not the only imi­ta­tions of life that appear in World on a Wire. IKZ also houses an elaborate network of cathode-ray video moni­tors. Its employees use videophones to communicate with each other—one of the film’s only instances of a visibly futuristic technology. More striking is the use of video screens in the design of IKZ’s computer room, where Stiller is able to “hook up” his consciousness to Simulacron and download himself into an identity unit within the virtual world. The system is portrayed as a vast bank of television screens set inside walls covered with reflective silver, each screen a viewing portal that reveals the goings-on in a differ­ent part of Simulacron’s computerized reality. The images they display aren’t the computer-generated animations we twenty-first-century viewers might expect; rather, they’re regular black-and-white video footage, using the logic of a closed-circuit surveillance system or a live television feed. In the first half of the film, Stiller says the identity units are “like people on TV dancing for us.” In the film’s second act, Siskins enters the com­puter room to view his “double,” an identity unit that has been designed to look like him. He hunkers down to watch this familiar figure engaged in a scene that indeed resembles a bit from a musical variety show: a Siskins twin on the TV screen, singing a bawdy song in top hat and tails, surrounded by a chorus.

    If mirrors and monitors raise questions about the relationship of illusion to identity, World on a Wire takes a more explicitly philosophical turn once Stiller begins to suspect that the world as he knows it may itself be just another level of simulation. The film is peppered with allusions to Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno’s Achilles and tortoise paradox, and in grappling with the ramifications of the technology, characters engage in discussions that wouldn’t be out of place in a university seminar. The futuristic apparatus of Simu­lacron allows Fassbinder to visualize a much older epistemological problem around the nature of subjective reality. The computer here plays a role akin to that of Descartes’ “evil demon,” a theoretical entity who jams false infor­mation into all of the subject’s senses, bedeviling the realization of cogito ergo sum with the specter of solipsism.

    For example, when Stiller enters Simulacron for the first time, he finds himself driving a truck. In this sequence, Fassbinder employs the rarely used device of a first-person camera. We see as Stiller sees, through the windshield of the vehicle onto a deserted street, amazed at how indistinguishable this fabricated universe feels from reality—until the words “Stiller zurückkommen” (Stiller, come back) flash in front of his eyes, recalling him to IKZ. Reminiscent of a latter-day flight simu­lator, this moment also calls to mind a quote by Jean Baudrillard, written years later, about the ubiquity of simulation in everyday existence—the state he would call the Simulacrum: “The automobile provides a vector, resulting in the trans­formation of the subject himself into a driving computer . . . The vehicle thus becomes a bubble, the dashboard a console, and the landscape all around unfolds as a television screen.”

    The original viewers of World on a Wire’s broadcast would have encountered a strange doubling of their own: a mise en abyme of screens within their screen. Though today it seems like a strange marriage of analog and digital technology, thinking about television and computers together, as two aspects of electronic culture, wasn’t unusual in the early seventies. Influenced by the writing of Marshall McLuhan, video artists in North America around this time frequently used language taken from computer programming to find new ways to conceptualize televi­sion, speaking of “radical software,” “feedback,” and the “video databank.” Seen this way, World on a Wire is about something more than just the digital future: Fassbinder uses computer simulation as a metaphor to think about his own métier, film and television, as a form of virtual reality. The characters become little “identity units,” trapped within the artificial world created by
    the filmmaker-as-programmer, unknow­ingly playing out his directives. 

    Ed Halter is a critic and curator living in New York. His writing has appeared in
    Artforum, The Believer, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, and teaches at Bard College.


  • By God
    February 22, 2012
    08:47 PM

    Goddamn you Criterion, just received this film, why in the hell is it divided on 2 discs? Crappy edition, you suck! Next time i will fuckin download somewhere instead of buying your horrible editions. You release a cheesy flick like Godzilla and you do it on digipack and shit. Next you do a Fassbinder film on a lousy package and with a freakin´division. You just earned boycott from another loyal customer... You don´t care? I bet you will!
    • By Pete Doh
      February 22, 2012
      08:52 PM

      No need to go crazy "god", just buy the Blu, it´contains all the film on 1 disc...But to be honest i don´t like Blu...It´s just that my chick thinks it looks better. But it don´t...
    • By Reason
      February 23, 2012
      07:15 PM

      Its 212 minutes... No DVD will hold that much. Plus you should have read the details before you bought it. The way I see it, its you own fault.
    • By Dierk
      June 10, 2012
      10:43 AM

      You are aware that the film was originally shown in two parts on German telly? It was intended and written as two parts, as can still be seen by the strange jump between pt. 1 and 2 [in the cafeteria, when Stiller confronts Einstein] and by the different styles of the first half [mystery] and the second [action].
  • By Ishiro Honda
    February 23, 2012
    12:04 PM

    I demand that you take back those vile, hateful words about Gojira, one of the greatest films of the 50s.
  • By Michael Sears
    February 23, 2012
    03:41 PM

    By, god, your a real work. Must be part of the Matrix crowd.
  • By Matthews4Cy
    February 23, 2012
    07:34 PM

    haha!.....By God. what an idiot.
  • By Peter
    February 27, 2012
    05:08 PM

    By God he is right. There is nothing on the site that warns buyers about this flaw. I agree with him. It is a most grevious error. I don't think the cussing was justified, but by God's righteous anger should be duly noted.
    • By alvareo
      November 21, 2012
      08:46 PM

      1. Yes it is, it always says how many discs are per edition, 2. Fitting that much video on a DVD would make it look awful, 3. The film is already divided in two parts.
  • By Frank F.
    February 27, 2012
    05:36 PM

    How is it a "flaw"? It's not a flaw. It's a very long miniseries that could not fit on one disc. Flaw? This is true of many Criterion discs in the past of a certain length,
  • By Tribe
    February 29, 2012
    04:00 PM

    Someone is off his or her meds.
    • By Cassandra
      March 23, 2012
      11:39 PM

      Maybe you don´t need those meds, just a little sense of f__ing humour...
  • By j.russell
    March 01, 2012
    07:07 PM

    Makes me glad I'm and atheist.
  • By Craig J. Clark
    March 05, 2012
    11:24 AM

    What an amazing film (no matter how many discs it's on). I didn't think it was possible, but I believe I may have found my new favorite Fassbinder.
  • By UnauthorizedCBD
    March 09, 2012
    08:32 PM

    I guess By God isn't aware that the film is split in two, because it is a two-part movie with an intermission. A least when it aired in Germany and played the roadshow circuit last Fall it was shown I two parts.
  • By James
    March 10, 2012
    12:48 AM

    Can anyone please tell me the name/artist of the jazzy main theme? Thanks.
    • By Craig J. Clark
      March 29, 2012
      01:56 PM

      That's "Albatross" by Fleetwood Mac (back when Peter Green was still running the show). Such a haunting tune.
  • By God
    March 23, 2012
    11:36 PM

    Oh hell, never wanted to offend Gojira or anyone of my children, even the atheists, believe me, i understand them like no one and they have all the reasons in the world to not believe, if i lived in your world, i would be an atheist too. Regarding the film, let me say it´s a wonderful one, i have loved Fassbinder since i was at college and now i discovered another gem of his, i am thankful to me. My rant was bad done, let me get it straight: Criterion used to make the most impressive editions of films since they started, i remember films like Amarcord, The Double Life of Veronique, The Battle of Algiers and a shitload of other films in pretty cool digipack editions with books and lots of extras. The new ones, like since 2009, are lacking that effort, that special care that made them awesome and unique...The cover on this release is the same i had years ago on the Criterion laserdisc and the same transfer was already available in Europe months before Criterion re released it, the essay is short and superficial and it lacks cool extra material. Just sayin´i adore this film and have made a great collection through the years but somehow i was disappointed for the lack of love; i felt this release was a little rushed but... I guess i have become a delusional fuck and Criterion has become lazy and a little generic for my tastes. Whatever, i hope you enjoy this great film too. And by the way i also hate Blu ray, it looks artificial and photoshopped. I bless you all...
  • By James
    March 29, 2012
    12:15 AM

    This movie rules!
  • By Lee
    May 18, 2012
    09:48 PM

    Oh damn it, i traded my dvd version for a blu, now i have a black square on the film and no configuration changes it, i should have kept the dvd, oh, my bad.
  • By Clive
    December 04, 2013
    06:28 PM

    Has anyone noticed there´s a lot of hairs at the border of the image? I watched it on Blu on a 60 inch screen, in the scene where they are at the pool with the woman singin (first 20 mins) there´s a real big one at the top, and in some previous scenes at the bottom. How annoying, i thought Criterion meant pristine transfers...Not in this case.
    • By Craig J. Clark
      December 05, 2013
      02:20 PM

      If you watch the documentary that is included on the release, Michael Ballhaus talks about overseeing the restoration. When he was given the opportunity to "fix" those errors, he decided to let them be.
  • By Fred Stiller
    December 22, 2013
    01:31 PM

    These comments are almost better than the film!!
    • By Rick
      April 01, 2014
      06:42 PM

      I love the comments too, although the profanity puzzles me. My interest is the literary aspect of the film and many of the details so loudly condemned or lengthily discussed here are irrelevant to that. Haven't seen the film yet, but Ed Halter's essay gives a knowledgeable and insightful intro (I hope!).
  • By Günther Lause
    December 22, 2013
    01:35 PM

    I think Criterion does a beautiful job packaging and distributing their films. Oh and 'god', lose the ego.