Monday, July 25, 2011

World On A Wire (1973) | Welt Am Draht

Inside A Live? Or Memorex? Future

Klaüs Lowitsch as Fred Stiller in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic "World On A Wire". 
Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 25, 2011

World On A Wire" (Welt Am Draht), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 classic sci-fi adventure in existentialism and perception, gets a high-definition rebirth in its brief re-appearance in U.S. theaters after a quick exhibition last year.  This futuristic tale, shot so marvelously by Michael Ballhaus, remains glossy techno-cinema.  Ice blue hues and oversaturated colors dominate.

An IKZ executive at technology corporation Cybernetics has an extreme headache.  He sees a bleak future, one so terrible for the world that he can't utter a word about it before dropping dead.  Another man disappears into thin air.  What is behind all of this?  Piercing sounds punctuate the film, ringing in our ears and in the mind of Fred Stiller (a terrific Klaüs Lowitsch), a Cybernetics employee.  The company has devised a powerful super computer named Simulacron.  Meanwhile, Fred investigates the mysterious disappearances but something is happening to him in the process.  Those loud, piercing noises get louder.  Fred is figuratively paralyzed by blinding headaches.  He's accused of murder.  He becomes a fugitive.  Fred has to uncover the truth about Cybernetics and Simulacron before the end catches up with him.  What's real and what's not?

For the time in which it was made, Mr. Fassbinder's film anticipates the future well.  Funny, in some ways even outlandish now, "World On A Wire" is always aware of its self-parody and the stage it occupies as a pop-art picture.  The film, however, is entirely serious about its visions and heart.  "World On A Wire" is less a drama than a comedic meditation of madness and fear of new species that threatens to make humans, or at least humans-as-we-know-them, extinct.  The film doesn't necessarily comment on computers and the electronic future in an especially substantive way; the fact that the world might be headed there is its pure, singular horror.

"World On A Wire" is also a cinematic study of human transition.  Juxtapositions of humans and mannequins represent evolvement of human species, but how much of an evolvement given the director's near-catatonic human figures?  Further evolution is glimpsed in a shot of Fred and his wife as they lie in bed on leopard-skin pillows.  Their blankets are made of animal pelts.  They try to cling to those prehistoric origins but technology and its onslaught represent a faster transition than they -- specifically Fred Stiller -- wants or is ready for.  Fred is fearful, paranoid, confused, and wants so desperately to stay in touch with his own humanity.  Is he live, Memorex or just plain "Cuckoo's Nest" crazy?  And whose world is he living in if not his own? 

Mr. Fassbinder's trademark views through the prism of glass -- his cameras make love to it as much as the characters do -- gives full, rich perspective to precise shot-making.  Choreographed with excessive discipline, characters stay frozen in place until other characters change position or are disrupted by noise, simulating a robotic world that has begun to infect human discourse.  The film's transgressions are subtle and obvious: the humans of the real world and the humans of the computer age are neither phenotypically nor discerningly distinct from each other.  There's a constant disembodiment of the human image, fragmented in glass, mirrors and windows.

A scene in "World" that's just one  example of Fassbinder's love of glass and distortion.  Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation

The players on this cool and muted canvas love the decor they play in.  They
are the decor.  The characters even play with the film's decor in their dialogue.  Mannequin-like, characters pose and model like Dietrich amidst an artsy, robotic camp atmosphere full of music and odd noises.  The odd, technical sounds evoke sound checks.  The film feels like Leone's spaghetti westerns.  Watching "World On A Wire" is like watching a photo shoot come to life and evolve.  It's truly a moving picture of static figures.  Sudden jump cuts and zooms on faces supply comedy not necessarily the urgency of a character's realizations.

Mr. Fassbinder's film is remarkably procedural but its strength is in the mystery of its evaporating characters and its blurring of real and technological.  It is science-fiction investigation wrapped in coded motions.  The corporate presence is not necessarily welcomed here, a theme that plays ironically today given Apple and its largely celebrated impact on the world's technology (iPad, iPhone) and computers.

Almost everything is objectified in "World".  Cars.  Women.  Men.  Objectified.  "World" self-parodies its interactivity with objects and decor with zeal and unmistakable fetish.  Cars gleam and shine.  A cigarette lighter is the object of spontaneous doom, and with its dry satire the film explodes some of its own comic symbolism, simultaneously mocking and exaggerating it.  "World" objectifies its objects and its technology, adding androgyny and homoeroticism as a punctuation of the story and the characters' fascination and confusion about an ever-changing, ever-modernizing world.

The film is arresting, deliberate and sharp, its styling ornate and extravagant.  "World On A Wire" gives a whiff of an ode to "2001: A Space Odyssey", with an homage to HAL 9000, and there's a piece of music ("The Blue Danube") heard faintly during one scene when characters discuss Simulacron 1, the perspicacious computer that manufactures artificial intelligence.  "World On A Wire" accurately foretells and symbolizes the advent of a future hooked on phonics and electronics, of human beings merged or virtually in-sync with technology.  Mr. Fassbinder mocks the horror of this future and his characters' reaction to it.  The film's synthetic surface only enhances the parody of its oncoming, unavoidable techno age.

More glass distortion and disembodiment in Mr. Fassbinder's epic "World On A Wire".  Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation

"World On A Wire" looks like a sweet, romantic view of the end of human beings as humans and their birth as automatons, slaves to mechanical rhythms and Kraftwerk-style electric-boogie.  The film doesn't feel as dated as does stark, brittle and enveloped in melancholy.  Unknowing characters preside over a transition that has already overtaken them.  Some realize it.  Others do not.

Mr. Fassbinder's film has influenced many over the last 40 years, including "The Matrix" and "Source Code".  "World On A Wire", with its flourishes of Philip K. Dick, exudes elegance and 1950s-love story romanticism while moored in its 1970s checkered suits and bright-colored fashions.  Made for German television, "World On A Wire" runs almost four hours long but is a mesmerizing trip into mind-shifting, memory-challenged perception and madness, and through visions or hallucinations of a sparse, limiting future.  The film remains inventive and ambitious even though its scope, due to its television trappings, remains intimate.

"World On A Wire" has remained largely unseen inside the U.S. for many years, and after a brief theatrical run Stateside last year has re-emerged in 2011 at film festivals (including San Francisco's 54th edition in April) and now is in renewed theatrical release.  The film is making its way around the country.  If "World On A Wire" is playing in your city, make a date to spare four hours (including intermission) at your local theater or drive or train-ride to another to see it.  Mr. Fassbinder's fine, transfixing epic deserves maximum exposure on the largest possible screen.  I loved the world that this film lives in and I marveled at its trance-like states of observance and illusion. 

"World On A Wire" is priceless cinema, almost 40 years later.

Barbara Valentin, Macha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Günter Lamprecht, Ulli Lommel, Adrian Hooven, Ivan Desny, Joachim Hansen, Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, John Gottfried, Rudolf Lenz, Lieselott Eder, Elhedi Ben Salem, Solange Pradel, Maryse Dellannoy, Elma Karlowa, Bruce Low, Magdalena Montezums, Christiane Maybach, Eddie Constantine, Peter Moland, Doris Mattes. 

Review also here (San Francisco Indie Movie Examiner), with five photos

"World On A Wire" (Welt Am Draht) is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but contains violence, sensuality, some nudity and an image or two some viewers may find disturbing.  The film is in the German language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is three hours and 25 minutes (excluding intermission.)

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