There’s an odd little place in my heart for quirky, colorful, outdated foreign science fiction films from the 1970s. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973) falls squarely into that peculiar little subset. This movie is dull as rocks, in a bizarrely interesting way.
In the near future, a German megacorporation called IDZ has developed a simulated reality on a computer, populated by artificial constructs with all the attributes of human beings. The mysterious death of the company’s technical director leads to the promotion of Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), who steps confidently into the job. But the troubling circumstances of his predecessor’s death are followed by the vanishing, without a trace, of the security director — who nobody else seems to remember. Stiller’s investigation leads him down lonely philosophical paths, as he finds himself questioning the very nature of reality.
Is this the first virtual reality film? It certainly feels ahead of its time, in concept anyway. That said, World on a Wire isn’t liable to surprise a seasoned modern SF fan; the first half, in particular, feels pretty obvious. And that’s a very long first half: the film, actually a German TV miniseries, spans nearly three and a half hours. I felt several steps ahead of the protagonist throughout, and frequently impatient with the story’s glacial progress.
And yet there’s something weirdly mesmerizing about it: the slow pans, the impressive set design, the monotone dialogue, the 1970s futurism. It’s slow, strange, and utterly different, like an unknown Philip K. Dick novel brought to sluggish, rigid life. Fassbinder is an auteur of some renown, and it’s easy to see why. His camera work is impressive, if indulgent. And as bloody slow as it is, there’s something refreshing about its stately, moody patience. (An American remake would slash the running time in half, but remove all the artistry.)
Ultimately this is one of those films I’m glad I saw, but I’m glad I’ll never have to see again: a weird little slice of foreign arthouse SF cinema history. It will bore the shit out of you, in a uniquely somber and beautiful way.