World on a Wire Review
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's two-part TV feature World on a Wire is a bit of a rarity for this director. Aside from the fact that it's been hard to see until relatively recently, it's also unlike any other Fassbinder work. Fassbinder however was certainly eclectic and even more so in work developed for television where he had a modest WDR budget to try something new. It's also a rarity as it's the director's only venture into science-fiction, but what is even more uncommon is that World on a Wire is intelligent SF that is more interested in human responses to technology than presenting futuristic visuals and effects.
Made in 1973 the futuristic world of World on a Wire inevitably looks a little dated now but despite that, or even because of it, it still retains an otherworldly feel. The film was however ahead of its time in its consideration of virtual reality and autonomous artificial intelligence, concepts that have since been approached in The Matrix and Inception. Fassbinder and co-author Fritz Müller-Scherz were much more concerned with ideas in Daniel F. Galouye's original novel that were also being explored by Philip K Dick, about how to determine what is real and how human psychology would be able to cope (or not) with technological challenges to fundamental notions of existence.
Professor Vollmer at the IKZ Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology has been working on Simulacrum, a project on artificial life. The computer has created a virtual world with 10,000 identities or personalities uploaded into it where the inhabitants of this virtual world simulate every aspect of human behaviour, unaware that they are not even real. The government are interested in the project as it allows complex behavioural models to be 'tested' in a virtual world, allowing them to project future developments and enable them to build what they claim to be an idealised society.
Professor Vollmer however has died in strange circumstances and has been replaced by his former assistant Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch). Witnessing strange inconsistencies in the investigation of his colleague's death Stiller begins to suspect that it might not have been accidental. When the head of security Günther Lauser disappears next and no-one seems to have heard of him, Stiller suspects that something is seriously amiss. Either he is crazy or everyone else is. Stiller's behaviour becomes increasingly paranoid, suspecting a grand conspiracy, but as a scientist dealing with virtual reality, he has good reason to have misgivings.
Rather than a science-fiction murder mystery, it soon becomes clear that World on a Wire is more interested in the deeper philosophical questions that arise out of this futuristic situation. If we arrive at a point where whole artificial worlds can be created, how can we trust anything we see? When the 'reality' is controlled by government and large corporations like IKZ, the chances are that it will suppress or control individuality and lead to dehumanisation and desensitisation.
Still holding to his usual working methods, with no great need for special effects, Fassbinder uses other means of depicting how the human psyche might react to even small shifts in their perception of normality. Using mirrors and with Michael Ballhaus's creative camera angles and 360-degree pans, he manages to create a sense of a disjointed reality, with mirrors reflecting inward as if there is nothing outside. Even the landscapes of half-formed building developments have a coldness that is far away from the usual passionate Fassbinder treatments. Fassbinder would however sometimes exhibit a dark nihilistic and depressive side that would come to the fore in the later films The Third Generation (1978), his segment of Germany in Autumn (1978) and In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1979), where echoes of the war, terrorism and man's inhumanity towards man becomes all-consuming and maddening.
World on a Wire presents the ultimate fear of all-consuming madness where essentially, in order to simulate and predict what might happen in a simulated world, its creators allow a corporation in a simulated world to create their own simulated world. When virtual on-line existences dominate our lives and where huge corporations can test, experiment and manipulate personal data of the lives we lead on-line, you can't help but feel that we're ever more closer to the world (or worlds) depicted in World on a Wire. The human response to a breakdown of perception of what constitutes reality is surely starting to show in the on-line world of today and heedless of the warnings we seem to be too desensitised and compliant to do anything about it.
World on a Wire is released by Second Sight as a 2-disc Blu-ray set. Filmed in two feature-length parts, the original television series was restored in 2010 using the 16mm reversal rolls, scanned in 2K resolution, colour corrected and cleaned up under the supervision of the film's original Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus. Inevitably, considering Fassbinder's fast and loose shooting methods and the fact that as a 1973 TV series it was not intended for high-definition presentation, some of the scenes can now look quite soft and grainy. You're not going to see a great advancement on Second Sight's previous DVD release then, but as a HD presentation on Blu-ray, it is assuredly the best this series can look and sound. Indeed the part that the soundtrack plays in creating a sense of unease and disjointedness is perhaps more evident here on the disc's uncompressed LPCM mono track. English subtitles are optional.
The new Blu-ray contains the same excellent RWF Foundation feature by Juliane Lorenz found on the earlier DVD release 'Looking ahead to today' which benefits primarily from the contributions of co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz and Michael Ballhaus. It also looks at the scientific developments that have occurred in the meantime. Disc 1's short feature on Peter Gauhe 'Observing Fassbinder' provides another insight into the director's methods and a wonderful anecdote about his single scene in World on a Wire. Disc 2 contains 'No Strings Attached, an interview with assistant director Renate Leiffer who provides more fascinating insider insights on the Fassbinder team and places the film in the context of the director's other work around this time. The 'Original Broadcast Recap' of Part 1 is included, and 'The Simulation Argument' provides some heavy philosophical input from Nick Bostrom on the idea that we all exist in a simulation without knowing it. A 50-page booklet of writing on the film is also included with this release, but was not seen for review