DVD Review: World on a Wire

World On a Wire DVDSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Rainer Werner Fassbinder | CAST: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Ulli Lommel, Günther Lamprecht
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 3/21/2012 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $29.95
BONUSES: documentary World on a Wire: Looking Forward to Today, interview with German film scholar Gerd Gemunden
SPECS: NR | 212 min. | Science fiction | 1.33:1 fullscreen | mono | German with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Although well known for his prolific output, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (I Only Want You To Love Me) made very few genre films. His handful of crime movies and one Western are all “citations” and reworkings of the genres in question. World on a Wire is thus a very unusual creation for him: a straightforward sci-fi narrative that has a sympathetic hero at its center.

World on a Wire movie scene

The future has a look all its own in Fassbinder's 1973 film World on a Wire.

Granted, the plot of this two-part 1973 telefilm (adapted from a 1964 novel by American writer Daniel F. Galouye) is so complex that Fassbinder and co-scripter Fritz Müller-Scherz had to take a somewhat straightforward, though still slightly trippy, approach to it. Still, few other Fassbinder films are as dependent on dialogue to keep the viewer “situated.”

Also, as is emphasized in the two supplements in the DVD package, the film was made for television, and while Fassbinder was left relatively on his own by the commissioning producers, his first mission here was to attract a mainstream audience.

The film’s plot centers around Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a scientist working on a computer project that finds he and a colleague (Günther Lamprecht) “playing god” to the beings living in a computerized virtual world. When he searches for a colleague who has disappeared without a trace, Stiller discovers that the “real world” he exists in could well be another level of artificial reality.

The preceding outline can be viewed as routine these days, thanks to the plethora of big-budget adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s sublimely paranoid fantasies. However, when the film was made in 1973, the only individuals who could comprehend the notion of a virtual environment were computer scientists and sci-fi fans. Thus the emphasis here on large clumps of dialogue in which the premise of the film is explained to lay audiences.

The most impressive aspect of World on a Wire is how Fassbinder creates a near-future that is a slightly “different” version of the present. With Godard’s Alphaville as an obvious influence, Fassbinder uses modern architecture in Paris, Munich, and Cologne to convey his futuristic setting (one mention in the dialogue indicates that we are indeed somewhere in the 1970s).

Michael Ballhaus’ (Broadcast News) expert cinematography sets the pace for the film, with a number of visually arresting tracks and pans, as well as Fassbinder’s trademark altered-perspective shots that utilized windows and mirrors. The visuals invigorate the proceedings, especially in the film’s second part where the intricate plotting gives way to a dire identity crisis (a classic Fassbinder trope) and a number of more conventional chase sequences.

A documentary on the film directed by Fassbinder’s former editor (and Fassbinder Foundation head) Juliane Lorenz and the interview with a German film expert included in the package situate World historically and discuss the movie’s dense and imaginative visuals, as well as the “mixed” cast, which was comprised of Fassbinder’s regular ensemble of actors and performers who were best known for their work in German movies in the 1950s.

World on a Wire, which was never widely released in the U.S. until 2011, is a very welcome addition to the Fassbinder library on DVD. It is by no means the best introduction to his work, but will entice both long-time fans and those interested in seeing an ambitious slice of 1970s German sci-fi.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”