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.