World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) ~ (German television, 1973) ~ Streaming on Hulu Plus

 Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films – this or any of his others – are not for everyone. But if you are a committed Fassbinder fan, then this sci-fi epic (no cgi here) has plenty to think about (Plato vs Descartes), and much to enjoy. The story revolves around a secretive cybernetics institute (IKZ) whose project Simulacron has created a replica of an entire city, complete with thousands of humanoid inhabitants called “identity units”. Sounds like Joss Wheedon (Dollhouse) had been delving into the German tv archives, no? The computer generated lives (units) are unaware, and proceed with their lives as if their reality is the only reality. Ah…but when Fassbinder intervenes, the lines of reality are blurred irretrievably. Fassbinder also takes the opportunity to create a Weimar-era feel, with its decadent night club scenes and the singing of a full-throated Dietrich Blue Angel clone, Solange Pradel. We’ve been exposed to these Fassbinder preoccupations before.

When the genius creator of the programming and simulation mysteriously disappears, his associate and friend Fred Stiller is asked to take over as acting Director. The chief of IKZ (Siskin) hints that Stiller needs to be not as “pig-headed” as Vollmer, and they’ll get along just fine. Soon it’s apparent that business interests would like to hijack the whole company for other purposes, a power play that Siskin is only to willing to entertain. But Stiller turns out to be even more “pig-headed” than the man he replaced. Before they put him in a strait-jacket he has to high tail it out-of-town. Paranoia and the perception of reality – what is real and what is not real – are some of the philosophic concerns here. But just when we think we have a handle on the real world (up here vs down there) the tables are turned. And there may be more than only two worlds, more than two parallel universes. Just as people keep disappearing, the memories of them and evidence of their very existence become suspect.

Going through the desk of his disappeared mentor, Stiller finds a drawing of Achilles and the tortoise – a representation of Zeno’s paradox. One moment it’s there and the next moment the page is blank. As if Achilles followed the tortoise off the page into another reality. Like any director of a film, Stiller has produced a program that has created a representation of human life – and hs has the unique ability (like a film director), to “add and delete people at will”.

Virtually unseen since it appeared on German television in the 70’s, the film has been completely restored by Janus films (and the original cinematographer).The visuals are stunningly realized and are in perfect harmony with the slipping perceptions of reality. The disorienting camera angles and dolly swirls and the many mirror images are just perfect (one of the best use of mirrors and film I’ve ever experienced). Sometimes the film seems shot through a McGyver script with the political sensibilities of Jean-Luc Godard. On the road to paranoia, Stiller is given a lift by Alphaville’s Eddie Constantine. It’s a Quaker Oats box kind of film.

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