Reality TV


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, World on a Wire, 1973, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 205 minutes. Left: Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch). Right: Gloria Fromm (Barbara Valentin).

THE EARLY 1970S was boom time for dystopias, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder had a go with a nearly three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3. Made for German TV station WDR (for which Fassbinder had previously made a workers miniseries), World on a Wire (1973) features a brutally literal vision of alienation: a computer-enabled alternate universe filled with people who do not know they are simulations. The government project, engineered by buff scientist Fred (“I’m Not”) Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), is intended as a model for marketing and sociological trends. But, like a crisis of faith run in reverse, Stiller comes to fear that the “real world” is itself fabricated, with someone somewhere pulling the strings.

Shot by Michael Ballhaus and interior-designed by Kurt Raab, Stiller’s real world breathes a recognizably Fassbinder-style mix of narcotic and heightened states outfitted to the hilt in mirrors, globes, monitors, curvy hairstyles of Op art hypnotic qualities,’70s decor that’s ready-made lurid, and throwback touches from fedoras to a Dietrich impersonator (rounded out with Alphaville-style outer-Paris exteriors and a cabaret/club called Alcazar). Reflections, occlusions, zooms, and erratic overreactions fill out the psychically expressionistic space; justified paranoiac Stiller grabs lapels, leaps fences, ping-pongs between a pneumatic secretary and raccoon-bloodshot waif, spars with his superiors, and flees their cronies. For Germans, the casting added another layer of fractured reality, drawing as it does on both contemporary TV actors and faded stars from music and heimat-films.

In Germany’s terror decade, Fassbinder would ascend to further military-industrial complex dread with The Third Generation (1979) (which features its own ominous computer: an Apple II). World on a Wire is pioneering but ironically speaks of real and fake worlds in terms dating back to Wells and Metropolis: There are those who live “over” and those who live “under.” It’s a division that underlines the schizoid fears key to so many visions of the future across cinema, rarely so luridly embodied as in Löwitsch’s reeling and keeling Stiller.

Nicolas Rapold

World on a Wire plays April 14–19 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.