At the age of 27, Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed World on a Wire. He was involved for seven years in a dangerous but infamous series of productions, only to end with his early death in 1982. He would also complete three other films at the time, during a hiatus from the production of Effi Briest, and shot at 16 mm in 44 days. With regulars Fassbinder, Klaus Löwitsch, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Adrian Hoven, Henry Vollmer, Mascha Rabben, Ulli Lommel, and Ingrid Caven filling out the film’s cast.
Historically, the film is one of the most obscure films among the 40-odd titles that make up his filmography. It had been screened theatrically only a handful of times before appearing in 2010, serving as a two-part miniseries that West German television broadcast. The story is an adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 work Simulacron-3, about a company that manufactures supercomputers.
People will use the computer to generate thousands of identities, human-like constructs that are also derived from digital information. Additionally, it also comes from rendering with such complexity that people believe the artificial world will come to life. On the other hand, following a digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the book became one of the earliest lengthy treatments of what the media knows as virtual reality.
Most of Philip K. Dick’s works become exemplars of a literary career in contemplating the artificial consciousness of paranoid existential consequences. In the world of Fassbinder, it is equally shrewd in delving into Dickian’s dystopian themes, explored in many years to come, such as one of the examples as Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Videodrome. With no special effects or low budget by science fiction standards, one can place World on a Wire in the traditions of the same genre, including one example, La Jetée.
In such cases, the desire to present a vision of the world unlike the audience’s is manifested by pushing the director to a new level of formal experimentation. On the other hand, the film signals the future through the most alienating elements of contemporary design. The director himself as well as his pessimism about technology remain in line with ’70s Hollywood science fiction. The setting of film mostly takes place in the offices of the IKZ (Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung) or the Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology.
Fassbinder envisions the institute as a maze of images reflecting each other’s rooms with Ballhaus and production designer Kurt Raab. Furnished with late-decade modernist luxury, it features decorative panels and shimmering mirrored edges, positioned behind a white leather sofa.
The Ethics of Technology
Watching World on a Wire isn’t a completely gloomy, doomy, and harrowing experience. Despite its chilling parallels to modern society’s moments, Fassbinder often embraces infectious dark humor, which is featured majestically in the miniseries. For example, Siskins and Fred have the whole conversation twirling around in the office chair like kids. Gloria tries to urge Fred to run away from a nearby murder, grows tired of being sloppily dressed, and leaves Gloria’s house with no attention in sight.
To avoid answering questions about IKZ’s relationship with United Steel during the press conference, Siskins announced the action, and dozens of reporters immediately stormed the table with assorted snacks. As scary as it is, such moments are not only a welcome counterpoint to the film’s overarching fatalism. However, it also encapsulates Fassbinder’s unique tendency to document non-cinematic yet unpredictable human behavior.
Regardless, the ideas in the film continue to resonate. The tectonics era became constant until it revolutionized the technological shift. Flashy developments in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and social media platforms are making headlines and attracting the attention of ordinary citizens, CEOs, and politicians alike. The brilliant creators behind such innovations rarely check the morality attached to products a la Facebook.
Honest dialogue is rare between characters, who have little input on the use of technology. Through his reflections on the ethics of technology, Fassbinder highlights how the capitalist coalition between companies and governments exercises unfair control. It exploits the naivety of society for status and profit to strip people of such agencies.
The Reflections of Visual Motifs
There is a replica of a Greek statue perched on a mirrored pedestal and a silver-plated table whose glittering but see-through glassware covers it. At such a moment, the sequence takes a structural reference from Meshes of the Afternoon, in which the reflections of twins become Fassbinder’s visual motifs over and over again throughout World on a Wire. However, his penchant for glossy surfaces will never again take him into radical fashion.
On the other hand, the mirror is not only an example of an imitation of life that appears in the film. IKZ has a complex network of cathode-ray video monitors. Its employees always use video phones to communicate with each other. One example is the use of video screens in the design of the IKZ computer room, where Stiller was able to connect his consciousness to the Simulacron.
He can download himself into the identity unit in cyberspace. Such a system, the film explains, is a large collection of television screens, mounted on a wall so that reflective silver coats them. Each screen acts as a viewing portal, revealing events in a different part of Simulacron’s computerized reality. The images that the characters display are not the computer-generated animations that audiences expect from a 21st-century audience.
The Centerpiece of Framing
Fassbinder’s critics have always argued that his penchant for elaborate set designs and clumsy performances undermined his pressing political and social commentary. In addition to describing the urgent social reality in his films, Fassbinder also keeps his distance from the audience. However, his falsity in the film reflects distrust in the notion of natural behavior and authenticity. His rigid appearance and majestic sets show his discomfort with reality.
The right approach to the film is incredible, as is the illusion that every character always feels disconnected. By appearing both as a stylish decoration and a thematic device, the mirror becomes the centerpiece of the film’s overall framing. Each scene has one mirror, such as a window, glass table, or another reflective surface. Audiences can never tell the difference between a reflected image and a real image.
The mirror refers to its audience entering into a simulacrum of unlimited characters and settings. At the top of the cherry, the reflection distorts the perception of the character’s true face to the point of resembling an embodiment that is nothing more than an image created by someone else. The omnipresence of the reflective surface also artificially enhances the overall framing to the point where it hinders the audience’s ability to connect with the characters.
It challenges the audience’s conception of the reality of the protagonist’s physical world.
Instead, it’s a plain black-and-white videotape. It uses closed-circuit surveillance system logic or lives television. Stiller says identity units are like people on TV, dancing for the audience in the first half of the film. Siskins begin to enter the computer room to see his double in the second act of the film, an identity unit that has been designed to look like him. He crouched down to watch a familiar figure engage in a scene akin to a variety show.
Therefore, Fassbinder’s admiration for Douglas Sirk influences the look of the film, serving as visual punctuation for his melodramatic emotional maze. With its adaptability and impossibility of the genre, the film became one of the director’s first inflorescences of Sirk’s style. He quotes the use of mirrors many times, saying that artists cannot make art about “things,” but can only make art with “things,” i.e., people, blood, mirrors, flowers, and all the crazy things that make it valuable.
In essence, Sirk is in Fassbinder’s mind, saying again that the mirror is a reflection of life. Most importantly, the mirror in such a mirror does not show itself as it is. It always shows the opposite. Vollmer introduces a similar idea of artificial identity in one of the earliest scenes of the film. Holding pocket mirrors to government officials, people are nothing more than the image that others create.
Fassbinder has expanded the use of the allegory of Sirk on the mirror into a world of glass creation where the audience is not sure which side of the reflection the audience is on.
The Self-duplicating Experience
The strange self-duplicating of the on-screen display becomes a viewing experience for the original viewers of the World on a Wire broadcast. Yet, the film can sometimes be like a strange paradox between digital and analog technology. It attempts to think of computers and television together as two aspects of electronic culture. It was not unusual in the early ’70s. However, Fassbinder uses language taken from computer programming to find new ways to conceptualize television.
He seeks to talk about data privacy, feedback, and radical software. When people look at it from a technological point of view, the film is more than just the digital future. Fassbinder uses computer simulation as a metaphor in thinking of his television, film, and media as forms of virtual reality. Characters become units of tiny particles, located in an artificial world that filmmakers (as programmers) create.
Unknowingly, it follows its direction. When Stiller entered the Simulacron for the first time, he found himself driving the truck. Fassbinder uses a first-person camera device that film directors rarely use in such sequences. The audience watched as Stiller watched in awe at how the universe flashed in front of his eyes, through the windshield of a vehicle onto a deserted street made of reality.
Such a moment reminds many people and scholars of Baudrillard’s thinking about the ubiquity of simulation in everyday life.
- Halter, E. (2012). World on a Wire: The Hall of Mirrors. Current | The Criterion Collection.
- MacDonald, E. (1990). Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the politics of simulation: two plays. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 131-152.
- Pintilie, L. (2022). World on a Wire: Reality is Colder than Fiction. Suicide.