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World on a Wire
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by Jay Seaver

"Virtual reality, some fifteen years before that was a thing."
4 stars

Even though the novel being adapted was released ten years earlier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "World on a Wire" still manages to be ahead of its time for having been released in 1973. "Neuromancer" was eleven years in the future when it aired on German TV, and the phrase "virtual reality" wouldn't even be used in this context for another four years after that. And while parts of it certainly seem quaint in hindsight, it remains a surprisingly current bit of science fiction today.

Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hooven) has spearheaded the creation of an extraordinary computer; a "simulation engine" which can create an astonishingly detailed likeness of the real world, with over three thousand autonomous individuals within. On the day he and agency head Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau) are demonstrating it to the secretary of state, though, Vollmer is erratic and mentally unstable; by the time the day is out, he will be dead from an electrical accident. That leaves Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) as the new head of the project, and while he initially enjoys the perks of the promotion, things soon get very strange for him: Head of security Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny) warns him that Vollmer's death may not be an accident, but vanishes before he can explain fully; Siskins appears to be making inappropriate deals with the head of United Steel, blatantly placing his assistant Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin) in Stiller's office as a spy when Stiller's secretary Maja (Margit Carstensen) mysteriously falls ill; and Vollmer's daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben) has her own mysterious comings and goings.

Though recently restored and playing a few dates on film, World on a Wire was originally produced for German television as a two-part miniseries, complete with a cliffhanger at the halfway point. That can make for a long evening when the whole thing is viewed in one sitting, and not just because of the sheer length of the thing (a little over three and a half hours): As an early example of this subgenre, it was made for an audience that had not seen this sort of science fiction very much, so while its original audience might have needed several hints dropped, even somebody who isn't a particular science-fiction fan in the twenty-first century will almost certainly guess where Fassbinder is going much earlier than the cliffhanger. It's a credit to Fassbinder as a filmmaker that he can keep things interesting anyway, but waiting for the supposed smartest character in the movie to catch up can be frustrating.

Fassbinder opted to do this for television in part because he couldn't see fitting it into two-hour movie, and while it's possible (The Thirteenth Floor adapted the same novel), Fassbinder and co-writer Fritz Müller-Scherz make interesting use of their larger canvas, giving a few minutes to things that might otherwise be overlooked, and filling the movie with a lot of characters and subplots that would easily be cut down or out. In some ways, the script is a bit unorthodox - where many movies would have the stories converge, things wind up going in separate directions here, with the ending technically rendering large chunks of the story irrelevant.

It's okay, though; large parts of the movie may ultimately be extraneous, but most are fun. There's very little in the way of effect shots, but the 1970s look of the machines is enjoyably of the movie's time but not kitschy - the production designers' take on the VR helmet interface is a very nice balance between functional and creepy, for example. The look is garish and colorful, both a 1970s look itself and that time's image of the future. There's a bunch of quirky, memorable shots that seem nonchalant and precise at the same time; Fassbinder lets the audience have a smirk without undercutting the genuine strangeness going on.

Part of this comes from Klaus Löwitsch's oddly energetic performance. Fred's a computer programmer and administrator, but he carries himself like a rock star, stepping behind the wheel of his new Corvette like he knows he deserves it and leaping over obstacles that would take just a couple of seconds to go around. His eventual collapse into paranoia is one of the more believable examples of dangerous knowledge driving a man mad (Adrian Hooven nails the end result, but it's great to watch Löwitsch get there). Karl-Heinz Vosgerau is an apt complement to him as the thoroughly corrupt Siskins; we get who this guy is from the first scene, but never really get tired of him. Barbara Valentin and Mascha Rabben are both pretty great as the women in Fred's life; Valentin puts some brains and self-awareness behind her sex-forward character, while Rabben's got this innocence that he pushes from blankness to mystery.

"World on a Wire" is a big investment in time that won't work for everyone today; Fassbinder's quirk is just on the edge of being too much and bits are slow going. On the other hand, a movie on this subject from 1973 really has no business holding up at all, and this one's built for watching in two chunks if the first half wears you down.

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originally posted: 09/13/11 12:55:48
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