An important measure of speculative narrative consists of its prescience – how well it anticipates the future. The test of a great work of art, IMHO, is whether it rewards multiple viewings or readings. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s nearly forgotten science fiction film of 1973, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), merits a place of singular distinction with respect to the first criterion, but it is not a work that I am in a hurry to watch a second time.
The film concerns a research institute that has, with support from a powerful and shady corporation, created a virtual world called Simulacron. This world is populated by entities, composed of masses of data, that believe themselves to be human beings. The purpose of this virtual world is to enable its creators to play out various scenarios in order to gain a better grasp of the future, and the economic and geopolitical advantages such insights would confer. But the creators lose control over this world when their digital creations begin to appear in the real world and plant doubts in the minds of at least two characters that the world they inhabit might also be no less artificial.
It is hard not to be amazed throughout the film, originally made for German television with a running time of three and a half hours, over how eerily it anticipates cyberspace, virtual reality, and the whole subgenre of science fiction films that explore such themes as the illusory nature of human identity, the abolition of reality, and alternate worlds. One could point to Philip K. Dick as the major source of influence, but it’s still remarkable how Fassbinder’s film encompasses the key motifs that have become familiar in contemporary science fiction, especially cyberpunk. I found World on a Wire far more charming than special effects-driven blockbusters in the mold of The Matrix. When a character experiences the distortion of reality in Fassbinder’s film, he gets a headache – no fancy overpriced CGI here.
But where Fassbinder chooses to take his material is somewhat disappointing. The pacing is uneven, the plot meanders, and Fassbinder doesn’t show enough conviction in working out the film’s themes. The world inside the computer looked to me like East Germany from the outside, and like pre-World War II Germany in its interiors. The missed opportunity of the film lies in not working with these historical and ideological markers to map out the simulated world and to shape the conflicts at the heart of the film. Instead, it’s as though Fassbinder traveled into the cinematic future and watch Blade Runner, Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, as well as The Matrix trilogy, and then returned to his own time to give a slightly disdainful and desultory take on the same material.
This is not to say that the film contains some well-executed sequences. The ending is in particular quite memorable, confronting the audience with an unsettling sense of ambiguity in giving the two opposed fates of the protagonist equal weight. The film does manage to succeed quite well in having it both ways: a brutal killing and salvation by love. There is a scene in a nightclub in which the song “Lili Marleen,” sung by a female singer, is interrupted by the martial chorus of the “Westerwald.” It’s also a nice touch that Klaus Löwitsch, who later absconds to Australia as the war veteran husband in The Marriage of Maria Braun, is one who sticks around this time, as his character replaces the head scientist who mysteriously vanishes.
The kind of science fiction that exposes the world to be an illusory construction echoes the gnostic myth in which uncreated spirits are held captive in bodies by malignant agents called archons. What Fassbinder’s film maintains, and what Hollywood films typically leave aside, is the gnostic doctrine that the physical world, which is our prison, is simply one level of the cosmos, and that in liberating ourselves from this world, our task of emancipation is not over, as higher levels of captivity await us. He also raises the problematic whereby we ourselves can serve as the archons for another group of imprisoned entities.