An unhinged computer programmer Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) holds a pocket mirror to secretary of state Von Weinlaub (Heinz Meier). As Von Weinlaub reluctantly gazes into his reflection, Volmer exclaims, “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.”
Vollmers’ sentiment evokes an ontological terror familiar in the sci-fi genre: our world, ourselves, and everything we perceive to be real is actually a computer-generated illusion. More specifically, his words introduce the agonizing, paranoid tone of World on a Wire, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973, three-and-a-half hour long, two-part miniseries. The dystopian sci-fi miniseries, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, predates the analogs used in Avatar (2009), the confusion over artificial and human intelligence in Blade Runner (1982), and, of course, the now ubiquitous exploration of simulated realities in The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010), The Truman Show (1998), and Synecdoche, New York (2008).
Set in the not-so-distant future, World on a Wire centers on the scientific breakthroughs of the government-funded establishment, Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science (IKZ). As the technical director of the company, Vollmer oversees the development of a new generation of computer, Simulacron, which generates a simulated world populated by nearly 10,000 “identity units.” These units, oblivious to their occupation of a computer simulation, live their lives just as we do: they go to cafes, talk to loved ones on the phone, listen to music, work underwhelming jobs.
Vollmer knows a shocking secret about Simulacron and IKZ. When he attempts to reveal his monumental discovery to one of his colleagues, Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), he mysteriously dies. Fred Stiller (played by the handsome Klaus Lowitsch, who oscillates between histrionic and naturalistic acting styles) then becomes Vollmer’s replacement. Soon, Lause pulls Fred aside to tell him Vollmer’s secret, but he vanishes in front of Fred’s eyes. The police and newspapers begin to investigate Lause’s death, though they lose all memory of him a day later. When Fred asks officials about Lause, he’s met with blank stares from programmers, IKZ employees, and the police. The mysterious event catalyzes Fred’s uncovering of a massive governmental and corporate conspiracy. Along the way, he loses his grasp on the meaning of his existence and conceptions of reality.
Fassbinder, one of the most prolific and acclaimed filmmakers of New German Cinema, directed and co-wrote World on a Wire. He adapted the script from Daniel F Galouye’s seminal 1964 novel, “Simulacron-3.” Those cognizant of Fassbinder’s style may find his foray into the sci-fi genre a stark deviation from his traditional oeuvre — lush, stark melodramas centering on power, repression, capitalism, and marginalized groups. And yet, World on a Wire is still 100% Fassbinder; his sensibilities forefront every scene.
By its premise, World on a Wire may seem like far-fetched, mind-bending escapist flair. However, Fassbinder employs his signature distrusting, anti-authoritative mood to explore the political and cultural stagnancy of postwar Germany. He expresses his suspicions of capitalism and corporate forces, all the while infusing the miniseries with philosophical meditations on the human condition. Most sci-fi flicks use special-effects to render a futuristic setting, whereas World on a Wire (along with Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965)) relies on modern European architecture, reflecting surfaces, and early 70s fashion to coalesce an uncannily familiar, albeit detached, conception of the future. Ultimately, Fassbinder implements a distortion of natural settings, paranoid tone, and unforgettable performances to tell the story of World on a Wire.
Before its Criterion restoration in 2012, World on a Wire spent nearly 40 years inaccessible to the public. Even today, World on a Wire has not received the recognition it deserves as a landmark sci-fi work. Its anti-corporate themes, reflections on the morality of technology, mesmerizing visuals, and hybrid genres coalesce into an utterly unique film, one that still unnerves and captivates us almost half a century after its TV release.
As Fred witnesses unexplained disappearances and implausible hallucinations, he begins to distrust his boss Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau), who clearly withholds information about Simulacron from Fred, the other IKZ representatives, the press, and the rest of the world. The lack of transparency drives Fred into a paranoid rage; he soon abandons his position’s duties to fervently attempt to unearth IKZ’s secrets. At the beginning of Part 1, Fred displays his idealistic hopes in his company’s sophisticated technology. When a journalist asks Fred, “Who benefits?” from Simulacron, Fred replies, “Everyone, if it’s up to me.”
Fred views the Simulacron as a liberating technology, whereas Siskins expresses more interest in privatizing the Simulacron and rendering it inaccessible to the public. IKZ promotes a capitalist relationship with United Steel, a corporate enterprise who want a simulated reality to foresee consumer demands for their products and thereby precipitate more profit. IKZ’s ties with United Steel, therefore, illustrate how consumerism underlines the purposes of Simulacron, rather than science, the advancement of knowledge, and betterment of society.
While illuminating the sinister collisions between corporations and government institutions, Fassbinder then asks us to examine the ethical ramifications of technology — more specifically, how their intended uses can be obscured and inaccurately packaged to the people. In the film, IKZ does not mobilize the “real” inhabitants of Fred’s world — nor does it, as Fred hopes, benefit everyone. Instead, it corrupts curious scientists like Fred and Vollmer, and it collaborates with United Steel for political and corporate gain. Fassbinder harkens back to WWII when Nazis used radio as propaganda to suppress and manipulate the masses. One scene features a stage performance where Nazis kill a Marlene Dietrich look-alike for undermining their authority, thus paralleling Fred’s own struggles against IKZ and the state.
However, the ideas of World on a Wire continue to resonate today, an era of constant tectonic, revolutionizing shifts in technology. Striking developments surrounding artificial intelligence, virtual realities, and social media platforms break headlines and generate interest from political leaders, CEOS, and average citizens. The brilliant creators behind these innovations seldom examine the inherent morality of their products (a la Facebook). Also, honest dialogue rarely exists between them and the people, who have little input on the usage of these technologies. Through his musings on the ethics of technology, Fassbinder highlights how capitalist coalitions between government and corporations exert unjust control, strip people of their agency, and exploit our naivete for profit and status.
Despite its unnerving parallels to our current moment, watching World on a Wire is not an entirely harrowing, doom-and-gloom experience. Fassbinder often embraces an infectious camp humor, which is gloriously on display in the miniseries. In one ingenious scene, Fred and Siskins have an entire conversation while spinning in their office chairs like children. When Gloria (Barbara Valentin) urges Fred to escape nearby assassins, the jaded Fred haphazardly gets dressed and exits Gloria’s house, without any discernible concern for his own life. To avoid answering questions about IKZ’s relationship to United Steel during a press conference, Siskins announces, “Now, a snack!” and dozens of journalists immediately rush over the table of assorted finger foods. These funny albeit eerie moments are not only a welcome counterpoint to the film’s overarching fatalism, but they also encapsulate Fassbinder’s unique inclinations in documenting unexpected, strange, and uncinematic — yet extraordinary human — behaviors.
With World on a Wire, Fassbinder, paired with director of photography Michael Ballhaus, produced some of the sleekest, meticulous, kitsch, and foreboding images in all of sci-fi. The exceptional and exquisite set designs, fashion, and mis-en-scene are evocative of 1970s European opulence while imbuing the miniseries’ setting with a synthetic and well-realized atmosphere.
Fred sports fedora and sharp, tightly-fitted suits, effortlessly recalling the suave looks of Dana Andrews and Humphrey Bogart’s noir heroes. Meanwhile, the female characters shine in metallic, glossy gowns around the IKZ office, which itself is one of sci-fi’s greatest triumphs in set design. Angular furniture, mirrors, glass tables, Greek statues, and lamps pervade the sprawling office. As characters navigate IKZ’s rooms and hallways, the camera constantly uses track shots, abrupt zooms, and fluid pans to follow their movement with a hypnotic elegance. The camera’s frenetic, yet soothing, mobility scrutinizes and scans the character’s own environments, allowing us to enter their anxious headspaces.
Performing as both stylish decor and thematic devices, mirrors are the centerpieces of World on a Wire’s mise-en-scene. Nearly every scene features at least one mirror, glass table, window, or another reflective surface. We can never quite decipher between a real image and a reflected one; the mirrors enable infinite simulacra of characters and settings. The reflections distort perceptions of a characters’ “real” faces, resembling Vollmer’s comment that they are “nothing more than the image others have made of you.” The omnipresence of reflective surfaces enhances the artificiality of the film’s mis-en-scene, hinders our abilities to connect with the characters, and challenges our own conceptions of the reality of Fred’s physical world.
While Fassbinder portrays pressing social realities in his films, his critics argued that his penchant for elaborate set design and awkward performances undermined any pressing social and political commentary. Yes, Fassbinder kept audiences at a distance, but the artificiality of his films reflects his disbelief in notions of authenticity and “natural” behavior. His grandiose sets and stilted performances suggest a discomfort with reality — an appropriate approach for Word on a Wire, where every character feels disconnected, uncanny, and illusionary.
In one of World on a Wire‘s best scenes, we see Fred, Gloria, Luse, and other members of the cultural elite lounge at a decadent pool party. With an icy blue color scheme, the sequence features some attendees jumping to the pool, but most of characters, incongruously dressed in high couture, sit like mannequins. They don’t converse; most of them stand three feet away from each other; they represent the lifeless, arid members of society. The scene’s impersonal staging embodies one of the film’s most latent motifs: the disconnect between human consciousness and their surroundings.
In addition to its striking visuals and meditations on technology’s moral quandaries, World on a Wire’s seamless blending of genres cements the miniseries as a one-of-a-kind sci-fi experience. The film is a hybrid of European art-house cinema — with its philosophical themes, enigmatic story, and slow pace — and genre cinema — its futuristic, dystopian setting and focus on virtual reality. World on a Wire ranks alongside Chris Marker’s innovative La Jetée (1962), Andrei Tarkovsky’s sublime Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), and Godard’s aforementioned Alphaville in the illustrious and rare intersections of art-house cinema and sci-fi. This thought-provoking, stunning, and experimental cinematic fusion showcases how sci-fi doesn’t have to rely on CGI, rational explanations, and traditional plots to curate otherworldly, alluring scenes.
For instance, to enter Simulacron’s artificial world, Fred simply puts on a chunky helmet. In a strikingly familiar, mundane reality, he goes to a cafe, where a bald man makes a telephone call and appears to live as rich of a life as any other “real” person in Fred’s world. If we hadn’t previously been told the world was simulated, then we would assume it to be reality. Here, Fassbinder views virtual reality as an unexceptional copy of the present, as opposed to bombastic, otherworldly landscape or threat to our characters’ existence. It’s a simple idea, but one still thoroughly unexplored in the sci-fi genre.
Notably, World on a Wire also infuses classic film noir tropes — a suave and hard-boiler hero (Fred), deceptive and beguiling femme fatales (Eva, Barbara), and its fatalistic pessimism. The soundtrack conflates film noir and sci-fi futurism. The zither theme evokes Anton Karas’ seminal, catchy, and haunting The Third Man (1949) score, while dissonant, jarring synthetic noises punctuate the miniseries’ more stirring moments. The inclusion of both sounds intensifies the film’s mysterious setting, as well as its central inscrutability between illusion and reality.
Alongside Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), World on a Wire displays how Fassbinder used television for some of his greatest works. At the time of World on a Wire’s release, television wasn’t considered an artistically meritable medium like film, as its programs mainly delivered lowbrow, uninspiring entertainment. 45 years later, acclaimed film directors like Todd Haynes, Jean-Marc Vallée, the Duplass brothers, David Lynch have exemplified how television can surpass film in terms of creative satisfaction and control. World on a Wire preceded each of these director’s works and still ranks among the greatest televised sci-fi works. Fassbinder was one of the first auteurs to prove how television can enable thorough, long-form, and artful programs.
While World on a Wire is occasionally frustrating and slow, it is one of sci-fi’s boldest, philosophical, and evocative works. It depicts the inconsistencies in our assumptions about reality; it demonstrates the disturbing forces of global capitalism; it examines the ethics behind our cutting-edge technologies. Fassbinder’s integration of his own anxieties, visuals, humor, and love for different genres enriches the already profound and unique miniseries. Apart from its captivating retro-futurism World on a Wire feels as pertinent now as it did 45 years ago.