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World on a Wire

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Karl Heinz Vosgerau

(US DVD: 22 Feb 2012)

A Lost Futuristic Masterpiece

Now more than ever, renowned film auteurs are finding their way towards the marvels of television, a world where they can usually paint on their particular kind of canvas without the limitations of moviemaking and studio regulations. Filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Phillip Noyce, Phillip Kaufman, Michael Mann, Gus Van Sant, Neil Jordan, Curtis Hanson and Martin Scorsese are finding TV to be the ultimate creative outlet.


But wait, you ask, how can it be that TV is liberating when it was supposed to be a little box invented for brainwashing? When did movies, once revered as the ultimate expression medium, become the standard for narrow-mindedness?


All of this happened sometime when movies stopped taking risks and devoted themselves to the altar of the mighty god called The Dollar. Film spectacles are no longer aimed to express unique artistic visions, but are specifically created to make a buck or a billion, to excite teenage boys and if all goes well, to begin a successful franchise which can be rebooted when deemed appropriate. The point of this opening, however, isn’t to cry over the messed up dynamics between artistry and commerce, but to point out how ahead of his times Rainer Werner Fassbinder was when he directed World on a Wire.


Shot during the early ‘70s, the miniseries was one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by any artist in Europe—especially one working in Germany—mostly because television was pretty much still seen as a novelty meant only for sports and mindless entertainment. TV wasn’t the place to put a movie made by one of the most controversial voices of the new German cinema, especially not divided into two 90-minute episodes. This might be the reason why after its original release, World on a Wire remained largely unknown for almost four decades. 


It became impossible to watch the complete movie until it was restored in the year 2010 and shown at film festivals. Watching it then, after Fassbinder had been dead for 28 years, and his canon had become one of the most respected of any contemporary European artist, must’ve been a little like finding an archaeological artifact that showed that ancient Sumerians had access to the internet.


World on a Wire is not especially complicated or ahead of its time, in the sense that it predicted anything we might’ve come to discover years later, but from an artistic point of view it touches upon aesthetic and plot elements that would gain prominence only years after Fassbinder’s death. With its interplay on virtual reality, simulation and existentialism, the film’s psychological and sociological themes suggest that the Wachowski’s The Matrix is actually a dated piece.


Of course, Fassbinder didn’t have access to modern computer effects, therefore his ability to create a virtual world relied exclusively on his particularly camp sensibilities and his love for all that was Douglas Sirk. Yet even in these setpieces that sometimes recall A Clockwork Orange, or James Bond on acid, the young director (he was 27 when he directed the miniseries) displays a wisdom beyond his years. How is it that he saw in virtual reality, not a threat to our existence, but a sort of dreamland where past, present and future meet and mingle?


Watching his hypnotic action sequences, one gets the feeling that they will remain timeless even when movies like Inception start looking “old” and cheesy. In a way, he announces the arrival of compositions that would only be matched by David Lynch, and even he has never shown an affinity to science fiction.


What Fassbinder tells us in World on a Wire is that science fiction might very well be considered a parallel universe upon itself, where we can explore and experiment with the nature of dreams. Just see how some of his scenes (particularly the strange musical intermissions) tend to spark unexpected physical reactions in those watching it. The plot in the film is of almost no consequence, its main story focusing on the “Cary Grant in a Hitchcock movie”, persecution of a man wrongfully accused of committing a crime.


To dwell on the plot twists of World on a Wire would be to deny ourselves the pleasures of its bizarre existence, and after watching the movie we might have surrendered to its sensual paranoia so much, that we might believe Fassbinder chose to hide the film from us and reveal it at a precise moment in time in the future.


The Criterion Collection has done a terrific job with the DVD edition. Divided into two discs, meant to recreate the division of the miniseries, the film looks absolutely stunning. The cinematography by Michael Ballhaus retains some grainy qualities that actually help the movie achieve some rather rich textures.


Extras include a one hour long documentary by Juliane Lorenz who interviews key behind-the-scenes players who share anecdotes and seem to be thrilled that the movie is being presented to modern audiences. There is also an interview with scholar Gerd Gemunden, who shares insight on the movie’s literary source.


Rounding out the set are a trailer and a booklet with essays. For all its retro feel and historical value, World on a Wire might be one of the most important releases of 2012.

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Jose Solís wanted to be a spy since he was a child, which is why by day he works as a content editor and by night he writes and dreams of film. Although he doesn’t travel the world fighting villains, his mission is to trek the planet from screen to screen. He has been writing about film since 2003 and regularly contributes to The Film Experience and PopMatters. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.


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