Rainer Werner Fassbinder fans of Miami, rejoice! His rarely seen 1973 science fiction television mini series, World on a Wire, will hit the big screen this weekend during an exclusive engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Fair warning: World on a Wire is a lengthy dozy that makes The Matrix look like its running in fast-forward (even more so).
Rarely screened since its debut, World on a Wire originally aired on West German TV as a two-part mini-series and then languished as an odd, sci-fi detour for Fassbinder, a prolific New Wave German auteur who directed more than 40 films in 16 years before overdosing on sleeping pills and cocaine at the age of 36. Last year the Fassbinder Foundation and MoMA pooled their resources to restore the series to an epic three-and-a half-hour cinematic experience.
The film’s protagonist is Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a buff computer engineer who heads the Simulacron project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology after his predecessor dies following an apparent nervous breakdown. The Simulacron is a super computer that simulates the real world by populating an artificial world within it with “identity units”. These “identity units” are given all the characteristics of humans except the knowledge that they live within a computer, so the world above exists as an observing and unknowable God to the identity units below.
Inevitably, corporations want in on the government project to simulate future scenarios so as to cash in on them down the line. In the face of strange goings-on, such as the disappearance of a colleague, Stiller resists. He soon begins to wonder whether he is in control of a simulated world or part of one.
At the core of this confusion is whether reality and existence itself are re-defined when humanity becomes reliant on technology. By investing in a computer-centric world, are we mortgaging our free will? What impact do Facebook and today’s other “social” platforms have on society and the individual’s sense of self? In 1973, World on a Wire was an ominous exploration of a possible future of alternate realities, a future whose time has arrived.
Speaking of time, World on a Wire is Fassbinder at his most sluggish, and those hoping for a fast-paced, futuristic action flick will be disappointed (and possibly lulled to sleep). Indeed, the long pauses the actors take between sentences, a Fassbinder stylization that can grow weary over a few hours, may serve as silent lullabies if you don’t have enough caffeine coursing through your veins.
But even though it often meanders, drags, and overindulges itself, World on a Wire is a daring film by a daring director. In his only foray into science fiction, Fassbinder embraces the genre, shooting with confidence and a palpably giddy pleasure. He defies rules of casual film narrative, abusing the zoom lens and layering oddly placed stings of “music” — burbles, squawks, hums, and shrieks of period synth noise by Gottfried Hüngsberg — that stretch the definition of the word itself. With its diagetic classical music, World’s soundscape also nods to Kubrick, who threw down the gauntlet for man-and-machine movies in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The acting in Fassbinder’s film varies in quality (Löwitsch was reportedly drunk throughout the shoot). But the overall effect augments the eerie sense that the characters are not human but avatars obeying the commands of an unseen user. Nearly 40 years after World on a Wire came out, it is a feeling many of us full-time internet users know all too well.