by Anna Kryczka, University of California, Irvine, Visual Studies
German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s made-for-television science fiction opus World on a Wire (Welt am Dracht) made its long awaited American big screen debut this summer. A newly restored print is touring North America through January. This three and a half hour affair serves up a wryly dystopian vision of a not-so-distant future immoderately evocative of its 1973 production date. The delightfully convoluted plot concerns a cybernetics engineer who begins to unravel a corporate conspiracy around a government-run predictive virtual reality program. Prefiguring many of canonical science fiction films such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner of 1982 or the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 film, The Matrix, Fassbinder moves his hardboiled protagonist between realities and through a dizzying array of fabulous seventies set pieces. The designed surfaces, costumes, and architecture all contribute to the resolute and somewhat maddening superficiality of the film. Filmed on the outskirts of Paris, Fassbinder made the most of this area of new commercial development as a both mundane and vibrantly plastic backdrop of cheesy cafes, sleazy clubs, and impersonal glass towers for this noir tale.
The film’s score mimics the set pieces, offering a curiously effective combination of irritatingly saccharine and synthesized arrangements of overplayed classical compositions and piercing techno-noise. Like many other works by the notoriously prolific and provocative filmmaker, World on a Wire sardonically balances the gravity of its sci-fi narrative with equal parts slapstick humor and an exaggerated noir-ish sexuality and moodiness. Incorporating curious direct citations from canonical films such as The Third Man, Fassbinder plays fast and loose with intertextual references plunked alongside explosions, and car chases. The film cleverly combines the tongue-in-cheek silliness, earnestness, a ceaselessly panning camera, mediated/mirrored/refracted vision, and awkward silences that characterize Fassbinder’s peculiar filmic mode. World on a Wire is not quite a typical sci-fi action film nor is it a redemptive metaphysical musing. Fassbinder’s promiscuous and self-conscious approach to science fiction mobilizes the then emergent built environment of 1970s urban peripheries to offer a vastly entertaining and alluring evening at the movies. Contemplating the eventual importance of then-fictional virtual, computer-based realities and the corporate and governmental jockeying around profiting from and policing these worlds, World on a Wire predicts not only the thematics of science fiction to come but also maps out the tricky moral territory involved in the jurisdiction of such virtual worlds.