At the end of the first part of World on a Wire, the science fiction epic Rainer Werner Fassbinder made for German television in 1973, computer engineer turned company bigwig Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) has a rude awakening. A colleague informs Fred that Fred is not in fact monitoring the virtual reality his firm created. No, he’s in it, says his laughing former friend: “This world, which you take for reality, is only a simulation model of the real world. Fred Stiller, the big computer boss . . . You’re nothing but a mass of electrical circuits.” This news doesn’t sit well with Fred, and after seeming to suffer a seizure, accompanied on the soundtrack by random electronic blips, he collapses; Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus cut to a shot of Fred from below the clear plastic table he passes out on, and soon a film of sorts covers the image of his unconscious face. The scene fades out to the tranquil, watery strains of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 single “Albatross.”
This meditative, insinuating piece of pop psychedelia, composed by the group’s then leader, Peter Green, seems, removed from its context, pretty apt scene-fade music, good stuff to roll one’s end titles over, in any event. It recurs in the same place at the end of part two—but it’s also used to accompany a scene in the second half, one in which Fred, seeing the world around him almost literally degenerating, jumps into his Corvette (the “dream car” a retroactively Mephistopheles-like character asked him about in the movie’s first part) and tears out of a parking garage, fleeing to his cabin in the woods. The music as used here contrasts with the brisk action, the claustrophobic dimensions of the setting, and the screeching of the car’s tires as Fred revs it in desperation. It’s here that it becomes interesting and possibly useful to try to consider the music at more than just ear value.
As much as Martin Scorsese, Fassbinder was a maverick in his use of pop music in narrative film. Consider the function of the multiple Leonard Cohen songs (almost half of Cohen’s debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen) played on the hotel lobby jukebox by the motley film crew of Fassbinder’s 1970 masterpiece Beware of A Holy Whore. These drunken, despairing, love-starved children of the counterculture aren’t just consumers of Cohen’s music; they could be characters in his songs. Aside from having impeccable taste, Fassbinder never let go of an acute sense of how music could place his characters. Volker Spengler’s pinball arcade breakdown accompanied by Roxy Music’s “A Song for Europe” in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons; Macha Méril’s strange aping of her charge, the crippled child played by Andrea Schober, to the tune of Kraftwerk’s eerie “Radioactivity” in 1976’s Chinese Roulette; and of course the doo-wop song punch line (I decline to name the tune so as not to commit a spoiler) of 1972’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant are all striking examples. Given the breadth of Fassbinder’s filmography, there are likely over a dozen more such instances.
As far as “Albatross” is concerned, the song had been a major hit in the UK and throughout Europe when it was released as a single in early 1969. It made it to number 19 on the German pop charts, pretty good for a trippy instrumental that was a distinct sonic departure for a band that until that time had been known for importing, and extrapolating upon, American blues. Like pretty much everyone else in the ’60s, composer and guitarist Peter Green was in an “exploratory” mode (as it happened, his pursuits of spirituality and enlightenment, sometimes of a chemical nature, may have spurred his subsequent substantial mental health issues), and “Albatross” was understood as an expression of this. Its aural impact aside (George Harrison recounted that its chording and atmosphere were influential when the Beatles recorded the Abbey Road song “Sun King” in the summer of ’69), the song carried with it a distinct flavor of utopianism.
World on a Wire was adapted, by Fassbinder and Fritz Müller-Scherz, from the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye. That book later also served as the basis for the far more mainstream-friendly 1999 American sci-fi thriller The Thirteenth Floor (executive produced, it happens, by Michael Ballhaus). Because Fassbinder’s movie is so prescient about notions such as virtual reality, because it plays like the filmmaker anticipating The Matrix, and so on, it’s easy to look at it without thinking explicitly about the time in Europe, the time in Germany, when it was made. Americans experience the defeat of the counterculture via the shooting of students at Kent State University; in Europe the sense of things falling back apart was experienced in the continuing aftershocks of the failure of the rebellions of May ’68. In 1973, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, German emblems of counterculture protest turned murderous, were in jail awaiting trial. World on Wire’s theme of a man discovering that what he has always believed to be the real world is in fact a fake, and a fake being manipulated by malignant forces, evokes age-old philosophical issues, sure. But it also refers to the more immediate concern of Debord’s society of the spectacle. And the movie’s climactic images of martyrdom, intercut with the discovery of a new reality that is as objectively closed-in as it is ostensibly liberated, bring to mind the Ferdinand Kürnberger epigram with which Theodor Adorno begins Minima Moralia: “Life does not live.”
Amid all of this despair, the tones of “Albatross” do not merely soothe in movie-music ways; they signal a not entirely unironical nostalgia for the now dead (in the movie’s cosmology, at least) dream of peace, love, and understanding.
The boys pretending to perform the piece on British televison:
Glenn Kenny is a film critic at RogerEbert.com.