The metaphysical question “what is real” has been raised by the world’s greatest thinkers, from philosophers to artists to the creators of the The Real World. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s two-part television epic, World on a Wire (which opens today @ West End Cinema), that age-old quandary is raised once more, and while its theme is familiar, its content is wildly original.
What’s more impressive about the characteristic uniqueness of this Fassbinder film is that it was made in 1973, years before The Matrix and Tron followed very similar plot-lines down the rabbit hole (but even World on a Wire’s originality is trumped by its source material, Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 Simulacron-3). Strangely, this winding piece of sci-fi noir was off the map until a 35mm print re-emerged a year ago, and now, you can catch it in it’s entirety at the West End Cinema.
World on a Wire follows Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) after he becomes the head of the Institute for Cybertronics and, aptly, Future Science. He acquires this coveted position after the mysterious death of Professor Vollmer, who dies moments after revealing that he’s discovered a terrifying secret. The organization, portrayed as a powerful machine, is working on Simulacron, a computer system that, as Stiller describes, creates a “a tiny universe, identical to our own.” Within the system exist thousands of human identities, and in order to uncover the mystery that left Vollmer dead, Stiller must venture inside the machine. Ring a bell? The plot has heavy traces of The Matrix and other films about plugging in, like Inception, Avatar, and Tron; in this sense, it cleverly foreshadows our own computer alter egos, which we plug into every day.
Be warned, as intriguing as it is, World on a Wire not for the casual film-goer. The full feature runs close the three and a half hours and is fraught with bizarre formal elements. What separates it from the aforementioned high-concept movies is the utter weirdness that is imbued throughout. The set is furnished with mod stylings, replete with plastic orbs and cold, Brutalist architecture. The characters exhibit only a surface level of human emotion, further confounding our connection with reality. This is no doubt a directorial choice, but it creates a strange distance between the film and its audience. Finally, the camera work, while stunning at times, is often reminiscent of old television noir, with a particular penchant for jarring quick zooms.
But for all its quirks, it remains deeply rooted in concrete philosophical questions, and Stiller spends the majority of the film pondering these dilemmas. He is thrown into a spiral of self-doubt after he finds a cartoon Vollmer left depicting Zeno’s paradox; he comes face-to-face with his doubt when he meets Einstein, a self-aware “identity unit” that manages to enter what Stiller believes to be the real world. As Stiller confronts this intricate puzzle, he begins to unravel. He is faced with the fact that we only have access to the content of our own minds, and therefore any external reality is utterly subjective. By that logic, the computer programs are as real as the humans are. When World on a Wire was made, this challenging approach to reality wasn’t knew. It stems back to Descartes and beyond, and they will undoubtedly be raised for years to come.