July 15, 2011

Back to Das Future

by Steve Dollar

World on a Wire

Nothing would be greater cause for joy than to think that the 1970s-style sci-fi film is enjoying a second orbit. Writers in major daily newspapers and across the Twitterverse are talking about Solaris again (even if it's for the wrong reasons). Duncan Jones, whose 2009 Moon was a smartly devised homage to the era, scored big with his recent Source Code—which resonated more for its existential quandaries than any pyrotechnic flash. Two recent Sundance favorites, Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice, play off of fantastic premises with limited technical mojo, letting the script drive the imagination.

Even if that doesn't add up to a zeitgeist moment, it doesn't hurt that an actual film of the era and genre gets its never-intended American theatrical debut next week: World on a Wire, the 1973 production made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for German television. At three-and-a-half hours, it was broadcast in two parts, and featured a full array of the director's familiar actors. Before his death in 1982, Fassbinder made 42 features in a 14-year spree that saw him escalate from the Warholian funk of Beware of a Holy Whore to international acclaim for the historical allegories of The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola. Amid all that activity, which included the epic televised miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, there were lost items that became obscure and grail-like. At the top of the list is World on a Wire, which had been shown only once in the United States—in 1997—before a 2010 revival at the Museum of Modern Art, which screened a new 35mm print, struck from sources that included the orginal 16mm film and a 2k digital transfer overseen by the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. Janus Films is distributing the film, much in the fashion that it introduced House and Dillinger Is Dead to American audiences.

Fassbinder made the film over six weeks in early 1973 when he was taking a production break from Effi Briest, although in terms of release it falls between his Sapphic chamber drama The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his homage to Douglas Sirk. But this is scarcely a bridge from one moody psychodrama to another. Instead, it's Fassbinder's Alphaville—with wider neckties, groovier furniture and sultrier babes. The futuristic story is set in an antiseptic corporate strata where scientists have invented a computer capable of generating a simulated world, a cybernetic projection of our that is being used as a model for marketing research.

Based on Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel Simulacron-3, the story tracks the steadily more aggravated mental state of Fred Stiller (Fassbinder regular Klaus Löwitsch), a scientist obsessed with multiple mysteries, including the death of a colleague and the increasingly strange nature of his own reality, which appears to be disassembling itself before his eyes as he races around in a haze of paranoia. Cyberpunk before anyone coined the term, the film evokes a kind of Philip K. Dick gone Teutonic Deluxe. Stiller, who has the solid build and receding hairline vector of a TV detective (which the actor played on the German series Peter Strohm), zooms through the city in a white Stingray, never takes the stairs when he can jump a guard rail, and consorts with his voluptuous blonde secretary (Barbara Valentin) and Eva (Mascha Rabben), the daughter of the suddenly deceased cyberneticist Vollmer, while men with big sideburns and wide-brimmed hats lurk everywhere, smoking cigarettes.

World on a Wire

Even as it posits a meltdown between the real and the computer-generated realm peopled by some 10,000 "identity units," forecasting Blade Runner, The Matrix and—sure, why not? —Inception in its multiple realities, the film could also be Fassbinder's version of a James Bond intrigue. All the elements are there, most abundantly in the Peer Raben-designed haute '60s mise-en-scene of forever glassy surfaces, white-on-white décor, and globular furnishings that emulate Stanley Kubrick, whose A Clockwork Orange came out two years before (itself borrowing design schemes from William Klein's 1969 satire Mr. Freedom). Ballhaus's camera floats gracefully through this hyper-cool strata, with elegant tracking shots often at a voyeuristic remove or snatching what is really just a mirrored glimpse of characters who may or may not be flesh and blood, only then to stop and zoom in for a baroque flourish. The soundtrack at first consists of a jukebox of familiar classical themes, then gradually slips into more electronic textures as Gottfried Hüngsberg's original score grows ever trippier and more threatening.

Much as in Alphaville—whose one and only Eddie Constantine makes a cameo—and its dystopian offspring, paranoia and technology are flipsides of a coin. But beyond the immediate pleasure of Fassbinder's style and the generous company of his ensemble cast, the film is anything but a genre novelty from a filmmaker whose grandest works were investigations into 20th-century German history. Its space age bachelor pad swank is no cushion against deeper issues. The story is less about cyber-angst than it is the evergreen puzzle of life as a dream-within-a-dream that philosophers have forever tried to solve.

[World on a Wire opens July 22 at the IFC Center in New York. Other cities follow through the year. Check out the schedule here.]

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Posted by ahillis at July 15, 2011 12:20 PM