World on a Wire

Though World on a Wire has the look and feel of classic Fassbinder –though it could not have been directed by anyone else — it is still an oddity in his body of work. The sci-fi setting was a million miles away from the contemporary Berlin apartments he explored in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, made just before, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, made just after. It’s a setting he’d never return to again. It has little of the melodrama he’s known for, looking instead to Hitchcock and film noir for its outline. The central character is odd for Fassbinder, too, for his conventionality: slinging guns, running from the law, pummeling thugs, and slapping broads in ways that feel more like a kiss, Fred Stiller is as traditional a hero as Fassbinder ever dreamed up, his take on the Bogart tough. A computer programmer in charge of an artificial reality experiment, Stiller investigates the circumstances surrounding his predecessor’s suicide. In the process he comes to learn that his reality is itself an artificial construction, and that he is an “identity unit,” “a bundle of electronical circuits.” Driven half mad by enlightenment, he spends half the movie trying to literally break through to reality, on the run from corrupt colleagues and a supercomputer that can manipulate every element of his world, except his will.

Outside a little pop Kant and Descartes, World on a Wire is pure pulp, a thriller of a kind, a chase movie filtered through the Book of Job. The philosophic pretensions of the genre don’t seem to interest Fassbinder nearly as much as the aesthetic possibilities it offers. Filling the frame with mirrors and metal and curves of glass that create fishbowl distortions, the floating camera finds images within images, frames within frames, expressing the film’s layered architecture, valuing the flesh and its reflection equally. The movie is filled with doubles and doppelgangers; the women are all either hour-glass blondes, thick-lipped and heavy-lidded, or thin-wristed redheads, ghostly gaunt; pancake makeup and blue gel tinctures turn their skin the color of ice. Flat past the point of affectation, the acting is perfectly processed, as if by computer. Fassbinder underlines his themes so neatly it almost doesn’t matter that he fails to expand on them. On all levels the action is unreal.  

Unfortunately, in World on a Wire Fassbinder never shows us what is real. Typically he presents both, contrasting the reality and his character’s distorted perception of it. The naïfs and narcissists he usually builds his films around are insulated by their delusions until reality inevitably intrudes; it is in the collapsing space between, where disconnected synapses still fire, throwing off sparks, that Fassbinder locates his explosive tragedies. In World on a Wire the classic Fassbinder metaphors are made concrete, transformed into plot conceits: the characters are literally and wholly isolated by delusion, living in their own little world that doesn’t just seem artificial; the real world is wholly separate, and wholly unseen until the film’s final moments. Without a point of contrast there’s no place to draw pathos from. The distortions we see in World on a Wire are little more than mascara streaks without reality for relief. Lacking that contrast, the result is oddly painless for a Fassbinder movie, both for the characters and the audience.  

Ultimately pain is Fassbinder’s great subject: the pains that people visit upon the ones they love, the pains that people open themselves up to, the pains that become addictive. The pains that we go to the movies to partake in, at least in part. The Brechtian technique Fassbinder famously employed to distance his audience from his art isn’t just there to make room to reflect on that strange attraction. It’s to keep the audience safe. Because the emotions that do pass through, gaining in gravity over all that space, are completely devastating. The universe described in World on a Wire is so deeply sealed in its own fiction, so untethered to reality, any real feeling is inevitably lost in space. There’s nothing in it to make you squirm in your seat — the chief pleasure of watching a Fassbinder film.

This isn’t to say that Fassbinder fails to stir up emotion in World on a Wire, though it’s maybe an insight as to why he doesn’t really try. The plot’s structure doesn’t accommodate his usual themes, nor does Stiller, running toward reality rather than hiding from it. But the genre and setting provide a forum for pretty much anything else. The colors pop, the score surges ominously, the architecture, inhumanly scaled, reads both futuristic and fascistic. There’s no room for tragedy, but there’s room for Alphaville homages and weird musical interludes that look back at Brecht and forward to the cabaret of Lola and Lili Marleen. The famous song in fact appears toward the end of World on a Wire, sung by an actress awaiting execution in a nightclub act. The firing squad sings a German folk song as she prepares for the end, refixing her lipstick in the glint of a soldier’s sabre, the red of her lips made livid by her pallid skin and black lace veil. Though it only lasts a second, and only represents a performance of a performance, it is the most sensually Fassbinder moment in the movie.

It is also a fun joke, in a terrifically fun movie. World on a Wire is one of Fassbinder’s most fun movies — one of the easiest to enjoy. But fun isn’t really what you watch Fassbinder for.