Blu-ray distributed by the Criterion Collection, 2012
The enfant terrible of the New German Cinema until his untimely death at the age of thirty-seven in 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder sustained a prodigious output (he made more than forty films and the fifteen-plus hour television miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz ), which illustrated his creativity and his willingness to experiment with film form, genre, and media to critique German history and identity. Because Fassbinder was born at the end of World War II, scholars and critics have noted that he, like fellow young German filmmakers who encompassed New German Cinema, such as Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Volker Schlöndorff, represented a generation that rebelled against the system, which they defined by its acceptance of a capitalist economy, conservative state, and an authoritarian older generation associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany. This post–World War II generation exploded in 1967, when protests against the Vietnam War, new state emergency laws, and the right-wing influence compelled young filmmakers like Fassbinder to engage politically using the art of filmmaking. It was amid this backdrop of heady rebellion and unrealized radical ideals that Fassbinder developed his style. He explored themes such as oppressive power relations and dependencies, melodramatic emotions, compromises, duality of characters and motivations, and fatalistic situations that often end in tragic death or suicide, many of which can be seen in his masterful film, made for German television, World on a Wire (1973).
World on a Wire was produced for West German television (WDR) in 1973; it was shot on location in Paris, Munich, and Cologne during a period of forty-four days from January until March 1973.1 The film was broadcast in two parts, with the first part airing on October 19, 1973, and the second on October 16, 1973. Michael Ballhaus, who worked as cinematographer on nine of Fassbinder’s films, shot it on 16mm Kodak Ektachrome film, and his bravura camerawork is displayed throughout the film.
The opening meeting between the head of the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology and the government representative introduces the main theme of the film: “you are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Professor Vollmer, played by Adrian Hoven (a major star of 1950s German cinema), utters this line to the government officer while holding a pocket mirror in his hand. The scene establishes the themes of the film: a dystopian science fiction epic that charts the rise, fall, and transformation of the protagonist Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) as he uncovers a massive corporate and governmental conspiracy ultimately revealed to be the work of a futuristic computer programmer who has created a simulated world. The world that Stiller believes is the real world, Fassbinder shows, is simply another form of simulacra Stiller escapes from with the help of the real Eva when his consciousness is switched with that of the futuristic computer programmer. The film’s plot is convoluted and belies easy description, but it is not the plot that marks the film as unique; rather, it is the philosophical and hypnotic qualities of the film expressed in its music, dialogue, and production design.
The Criterion Collection beautifully preserves Fassbinder’s forgotten masterpiece in this excellent new Blu-ray edition. Ensuring that the grainy look of the 16mm image is preserved in each shot adds to the experience of viewing the future through the technology and stylistic [End Page 121] patterns of West Germany in the mid-1970s.
The film was based on the science fiction novel Simulacron-3 by American author Daniel F. Galouye. The novel was an early exploration of what today is recognized as virtual reality. Fassbinder, together with longtime collaborator Fritz Müller-Scherz, adapted the novel’s themes of futuristic paranoia to explore the political and cultural situation of West Germany. They transformed the novel from a story set in the far future into one that utilized the look and feel of modernist architecture and the fashions and fads of early 1970s Europe to explore questions of identity and computerization and the influence of global capitalism on nation-states and...