World on a Wire (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): *****

I really don’t want to say a thing about  World on a Wire. I wish you could just take the above five-star rating to heart and watch it, untainted by any sort of preconceived notion other than how awesome it is.

That said, I’ll try my best to describe its awesomeness while tiptoeing around the finer points of the plot.

World on a Wire is a made-for-German-television science fiction film directed by enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The film is set during an approximation of the present in a Euro-metropolis. A technological thinktank – the IKZ – is developing a synthetic reality, known as Simulacron-B. The project’s purpose is to create an algorithm that can predict future occurrences so that trends in business, defense, and government can be anticipated and planned for. Simulacron-B is a resounding success and a few trouble-shooting sessions away from a full launch.

However, within the first ten minutes of the film, the project’s leader – Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) – appears to have gone a bit mad. “I know something you don’t,” he confides in an associate. “It would mean the end of the world.” Before elaborating on this tantalizing statement, Vollmer electrocutes himself.

Vollmer is replaced by Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), a younger scientist who is tasked with bringing Simulacron-B fully online at the behest of Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau), the head of IKZ who’s also working as a lackey for a steel corporation. It isn’t long before Stiller sees something that he isn’t supposed to and begins searching for the deadly secret that Vollmer alluded to.

Again, I hesitate to delve too deeply into the vagaries of the twisty plot. Fassbinder constantly challenges our comfortable assumptions about narrative and reality. The atmosphere of the film is suffused with the typical dystopian dread, paranoia, and claustrophobia as Stiller runs out of people to trust and places to hide. However, Fassbinder buoys the plot with an absurd sense of humor and a thin strand of hope that builds as the film rockets to its transcendent – almost religious – climax. Far from being a soul-crushing nightmare, World on a Wire leaves enough room for an optimistic reading. In the end – with its vicarious, Facebookish alternate reality – the film resembles The Social Network as told by Kafka, a more psychotic Inception, and an all-too-feasible Matrix.

Beyond its nail-biting narrative, the film is beautifully wrought. Despite World’s being shot on grainy 16mm, Criterion’s new DVD and Blu transfer has wrung every bit of color out of Fassbinder’s (and production designer Kurt Raab’s) fabulously mod mise-en-scene. Relying on minimal special effects, the film uses maximum design; set design, props, and costume successfully convey the Bizarro World version of Europe. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is a clear influence, as is Godard’s similar “art house” take on sci-fi, Alphaville (indeed, Eddie Constantine even makes a brief, chilling cameo).

Michael Ballhaus’ constantly wheeling camera greedily devours every detail of Fassbinder’s alternate reality. Luridly colored canapés are treated with just as much cinematic interest as any of the superficially “sci-fi” trappings, giving an alien sheen to even common place objects. The cinematic acrobatics that would define Ballhaus’ collaborations with Martin Scorsese (among them The Color of Money and Goodfellas) are all here in their wild infancy.

Though the running time of 212 may seem daunting, keep in mind that the film is paced out like a television series and can therefore be easily digested over several viewings. However, there isn’t a wasted moment; the three hours-plus zip by and I found myself wanting a whole lot more. The Criterion disc does a bit to assuage this craving: there’s a revelatory 50-minute doc that features interviews with Ballhaus and other principal cast and crew and a lively discussion with German film scholar Gerd Gemunden.

I’m woefully behind on Fassbinder, having seen very few of the 40-plus films he made during his brief life. I can’t tell you where World fits in the scheme of Fassbinder’s oeuvre but it definitely has left me wanting more. Mien Gott! This thing is good.

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