This little-seen two-part TV film from 1973 represents the only foray into the science fiction genre by the controversial enfant terrible of ‘New German Cinema’, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Shot on 16mm film and with both individual episodes running to a feature length one-hour forty-minutes each, there is nothing casual or throwaway about this particular small screen project: elaborately arranged camera set-ups, florid high-speed tracking shots and an icy-cold but cool-looking Kubrickian production design results in the visualisation of a blandly dislocated futurescape circa a low-tech 1973 that’s all white-painted office blocks, identikit plastic furnishings and warehouse-sized French malls full of chic 70’s boutiques - this is as seriously cinematic as TV gets.
The story comes from a now forgotten mid-sixties sci-fi novel, “Simulacron-3” by Daniel F. Galouye, adapted by Fassbinder and his co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz for the screen. But the high concept at the crux of the narrative is still a prescient one for modern cinema-goers for whom computer facilitated Cartesian doubt has become quite the ‘in thing’ in the intervening years, from “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ” and on to, of course, “Avatar”. Coming across like a paranoid mind-warp conspiracy worthy of the late great Philip K. Dick, in which science research is corrupted by a reality-crunching union between big business and politics, the plot pirouettes into a futuristic Hitchcockian innocent-man-on-the-run chase through sterile city suburbs, before landing in strangely affecting surrealistic territory that brings to mind the stylish, psychedelic mid-sixties existentialism of Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner”.
Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hooven - “Mark of the Devil”) heads the Simulacron-1 project, at the centre of which is a highly advanced super-computer, powerful enough to run a software model of an artificially created virtual world populated by programmed ‘identity units’ who each perceive their computer-generated environment as reality. The big idea is to use computer modelling to forecast twenty years into the future, letting the artificial units live out this possible run of events inside their world in order to better help humanity avoid any possible social or political pitfalls by observing how they get on. ‘Hooking up’ with the computer via a special helmet allows people to enter this simulated reality and interact with its inhabitants by way of the only specially programmed ‘contact unit’ (called Einstein by his creators!) who knows the truth; and people in the real world can observe everything that occurs there on video monitors.
On an important visit by the secretary of state to the Cybernetics Institute running the project, Vollmer behaves strangely, running out of a meeting and then later being found dead - apparently electrocuted by a massive power surge at one of the Simulacron-1 computer terminals. When co-founder Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) takes over the day-to-day running of the project, he is secretly accosted at a party by the Institute’s Head of Security, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny), who tells him that Vollmer had recently revealed a terrible secret to him which was the true cause of the weird behaviour just before he died. Before Lause can say anymore though, he quite literally vanishes after Stiller is distracted for just a split second! The police later question Stiller about Lause’s disappearance, and a newspaper story even appears about the event.
The next day though, Stiller wakes to find that nobody else has any memory of any person called Lause ever existing, not even Vollmer’s daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben), even though Lause had been her uncle. Even weirder, the original newspaper story has disappeared from the records and there appears to be a completely different person in Lause’s place as the Institute’s Head of Security - and everyone behaves towards him as though he had been in that post all along! Furthermore, the polices have no record or memory of having interviewed Stiller about the disappearance!
Meanwhile, an investigative reporter (Ulli Lommel) seeks Stiller’s help in uncovering a dodgy deal between the sinister and perpetually smirking head of the Cybernetics Institute, Herbert Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau) and the representative of a vast Steel conglomerate who he suspects of secretly abusing the Simulacron-1 project for profit, gathering information on future steel markets which may help it gain an unfair advantage over it’s business rivals.
During the very first scene of “World on a Wire”, raving mad project leader Vollmer produces a small hand-mirror which he thrusts into the faces of his fellows, exclaiming: “you are all merely the image that other people have made for you!”. From here on in, you hardly need to be a contemporary viewer, well-versed in the ‘Brain in a Vat’ philosophical scenarios that have dominated science fiction ever since “The Matrix”, to discern exactly what this ‘great secret’ Vollmer has discovered will turn out to be. The mirror visual motif is placed so firmly and conspicuously in the foreground all the way through this three hour-plus film that it quickly becomes obvious just what is being suggested - although it takes the protagonist Stiller the whole of the first 100 minute episode to glean the truth. Just about every shot is composed as a meticulously arranged tableaux in which the protagonists are reflected back at each-other by all manner of devices - from plate glass windows to multiple ornate mirrors to polished reflective surfaces. Characters will often be introduced by their reflections, before we become fully aware that their positioning in the scene is radically different to that which we first assumed it to be. The surrounding characters themselves often seem trance-like, plastered in inappropriate doll-like make-up, staring off into the middle distance and affecting an oddly artificial stance as though they were all waxworks exhibits in a museum. At one point Stiller visits his sick secretary (whose been replaced at Siskins’ behest with a pneumatic blonde called Miss Fromm, played by Barbara Valentin) in her oddly 19th century-looking flat, to find her passively trussed-up on the couch clutching a pale painted Victorian doll and sporting make-up that makes her look identical to the toy in her arms!
Fassbinder cannily avoids the trap which much screen science fiction encounters, when we look back at it at a later date and find the past’s idea of the future laughably kitsch or naive; by developing a rich mise-en-scene that seems artificially composed from a smorgasbord of stylised elements from the cinema's past, he creates a world that could easily be the future, where the police are dressed in over-sized trench coats that make them look like refugees from a hard-boiled ’50s detective noir film and the women are clothed in antique ’30s fashions that produce an effect which is somehow dislocating and surreal when placed against a backdrop of concrete office blocks and drab ’70s office furnishings.
This sterile urban backdrop is pure Kubrick of course, filtered through the Jean-Luc Godard of “Alphaville”: both “A Clockwork Orange” and “2001: a Space Odyssey” loom large in this visualisation of the future as a place which is at once both scrupulously clean yet disenchanting in its bleak corporate coldness. Dietrich-styled cabaret singers in smoky theatre-restaurants; weird, neon-lit disco-cum-wine-bars where the Asiatic cliental dance topless in a daze; and a central computer room where the clunky video monitors are encased in a facially-distorting wall of mirrors are just a few of the diverse backdrops provided for the film’s paranoid thriller plot stylings to unwind against. Stiller is framed for murder and forced to go on the run as he gets closer to the truth; he’s plagued by electronically stimulated headaches and riven with paranoia as he begins to suspect the unreality of reality itself. A score that combines classical music (the heavy usage made of The Blue Danube Waltz adds another thread to the Kubrick connection) with atmospheric ’70s electronica by composer Gottfried Hüngsberg gives the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop a run for its money in terms of its propensity for brooding bleep-and-drone strangeness - especially when Hüngsberg adds another discordant electronic layer to the classical pieces.The film is a visually rich, highly stylised piece of work and the unusual texture that comes of it being shot on 16mm film paints it with yet another gloss coat of otherworldliness.
The film has been painstakingly restored and given what appears to be a beautifully lush high definition transfer, created from a new digital master that was taken from the original 16mm A/B reversal rolls by the Fassbinder Foundation. It looks superb. One is tempted to think that it now looks way better than it ever could have on clunky 1970’s television technology, although the restoration team have been careful not to remove ‘fuzz balls’ if it would lead to a radical alteration of the director’s original vision. The accompanying forty-nine minute documentary by Juliane Lorenz, “Looking Ahead to Today”, examines the writing and adaptation process with surviving co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz; while actor Karl Heniz Vosgerau remembers the shooting of the film, which took place in the Paris of the early seventies in order to make this vision of the future look significantly different from contemporary Germany of the day. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus also supervises the results of the restoration process and remembers Fassbinder’s original ideas behind the visual appearance of the film. This two-disc UK DVD edition from Second Sight is a fantastic treat and Fassbinder’s unusual and hyper-stylised sci-fi TV film, rarely seen since it was broadcast on German TV in the early seventies, should be all set to gain a whole new generation of acolytes with its distinctive vision of a ‘70s imagined future. Well worth discovering.