Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire,” a once-thought-lost, nearly-four-hour-long sci-fi epic about the nature of reality and the ways in which we lose ourselves in that potentially futile quest, was made way back in 1973 and for that reason alone, it’s hard not to goggle in awe at how ahead of its time it was, even when it very nearly bores you to death.
Based on an novel called “Simulacron-3” by American writer Daniel F. Galouye, “World on a Wire” was originally presented as a two-part German television miniseries (it’s being shown theatrically with a brief, ten-minute intermission, at which point you can grab a giant soda or take a leisurely pee). Largely unavailable since its original broadcast run, in the years since it had been relegated to peer-to-peer services, which would have obsessives trading scratchy bootleg copies. Last year, though, a restored, 35 mm print premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, that has started rolling out to arthouses across the country. Oh, and if you don’t get the chance to see it on the big screen, fear not, it will soon become part of the illustrious ranks of the Criterion Collection.
The plot concerns Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a scientist working for the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology on a project called the Simulacron, a sort of projected reality which many in the company believe has some revolutionary potential. (In one of the more interesting subplots, a corporate magnate wants to use the construct to predict the price of steel in ten years.) After Stiller’s boss Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) dies moments after an announcement that he’s on the verge of something truly profound, and the company’s head of security (Ivan Desny) vanishes suddenly from a swank party, Stiller feels compelled to unravel the increasingly labyrinthine mystery.
On the trail of the conspiracy, the movie takes on the aura of a film noir – well-manicured men in fedoras follow Stiller as he hunts down clues, and a fetching femme fatale (supposedly Vollmer’s daughter) shows up to further complicate matters. Adding to the noir-ish feel is the zither-infused music, which feels like leftover tracks from Anton Karas’ “The Third Man” score.
Eventually, towards the conclusion of the first part of the film, Stiller dips into the constructed world to have a chat with Einstein (Gottfried John), a synthetic program that could hold information about Vollmer’s death. It leaves us with a cliffhanger that most audiences could have probably concluded moments into the film, and not just because, in the years since “World on a Wire” was initially unleashed, we’ve been bombarded with what-is-reality cinematic conundrums. Why it took so long to get there is part of the movie’s problem.
The second half sheds the quiet atmospherics in favor of more loudly tackling the existential subject matter. If these brainy scientists where able to design an artificial world, what’s not to say the world they live in is phony too, constructed by another group of people “up there?” It’s here where you’ll either be gripped, excitedly racing towards the film’s conclusion, or instead will be content to just linger, pondering just how such a heady concept was implemented so long ago, before things like “Blade Runner” or “Tron” or “The Matrix” packaged similar thematic concerns in flashier, more outwardly entertaining ways. (“World on a Wire” was eventually remade as the forgettable Roland Emmerich-produced “Thirteenth Floor,” embarrassingly released the same spring as “The Matrix.”)
“World on a Wire” is endlessly fascinating, even when it’s not entirely gripping. Klaus Löwitsch, in particular, is almost hypnotic in his performance, his raven black hair pushed onto his forehead in a slick V, oscillating between calm detective work and outright rage, sometimes in a single moment. The cinematography by the legendary Michael Ballhaus too is reason enough to endure the epic running time – the camera snakes through the elaborate, super-modern European sets (they look like something you’d see in Jaques Tati’s “Playtime”), increasing the feeling of voyeuristic unease in propulsive ways.
But, ultimately, “World on a Wire” is 214 minutes of intrigue without a whole lot of actual thrills. It is genuinely amazing that a film with such a futuristic conceit, decades before ideas of virtual reality seized the public consciousness (before “living in the computer” took on an entirely different meaning after the internet gobbled us up), concerned itself almost exclusively with technology’s philosophical and moral quandaries instead of, who knows, self-aware robots or something. It’s just that, with a luxuriant running time and not a lot of “stuff happening,” you may find yourself drifting. Far from a “lost masterpiece,” it’s more of a “fascinating oddity,” one in which you’ll no doubt be glad you experienced, but won’t want to rush out and watch again. We’re glad “World on a Wire” has been salvaged, even if the results weren’t as mind-melting as we’d hoped. [B]
"World On A Wire" has been newly restored and is touring the country. It opens in New York City this Friday. Check the official website to see when it play near you.