World on a Wire
by Daniel Engelke
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Drawn to the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder only a few months ago, I’m unsure if I’ve ever been so taken by a director. Full of contradiction, drug-abuse, and a unique conception of melodrama, Fassbinder’s controversial life is immensely intriguing. While I try to watch a wide variety of cinema, it’s been difficult keeping the rebellious German from filling my Netflix queue. It was understandable that when I heard the Fassbinder Foundation and Janus Films were set to re-release the director’s made-for-TV science fiction epic, World on a Wire, I could hardly contain my excitement.
World on a Wire tells the story of Frank Stiller and his computer generated world of Simulacron. When his friend and co-creator, Professor Vollmer, dies under mysterious circumstances on the eve of announcing an “incredible” discovery, Stiller is appointed director of Simulacron. Suspicions arise when Lause, security adviser of Simulacron’s institute, vanishes before he can tell Stiller of Vollmer’s discovery. Without an alibi, the police point to Stiller as the prime suspect in Vollmer’s murder.
Meanwhile, convinced the answers to the mysterious events lie inside the program, Stiller enters Simulacron. Constructing a meeting with their inside contact, Einstein, the two discuss Vollmer’s discovery. Now informed of his misconception of reality and the program’s unjust puppet master behind it, Stiller must find a way to clear his name and live freely.
Like the majority of Fassbinder’s films, World on a Wire pokes at political injustice in post-war Germany. But unlike the straightforward Lola or Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, the sci-fi epic has trouble deciding who to bother, big business or governmental control over the psyche. Sadly, the film’s ambitious political promises are rarely paid off.
Where World on a Wire really fails is the lack of precision, a huge element in Fassbinder’s strength as a filmmaker. Usually, but with a strain on attention span, Fassbinder’s camera movements pay off ten fold, but sadly, the director’s trademark moving camera and handheld work become too dizzy and too self-indulgent. Instead, World on a Wire’s already complicated narrative becomes dense and rarely bearable.
Though with every great director there are always moments of greatness. True to his cinema, Fassbinder gets the best performances and includes his usual favorites, Kurt Raab, Barbara Valentin, Gottfried John, and El Hadi Ben Saleem. Led by another Fassbinder favorite, Kalus Lowitch’s portrayal of Frank Stiller’s downfall into insanity is comparable to the director’s best.
World on a Wire’s biggest mistake is tripping over its heels. The film wants to be taken seriously, but continuously collapses under the story’s weight and Fassbinder’s cinematic tools. Though there is enough brilliance from the director to get you through the whole 208 minutes, it’s difficult justifying it. I suggest World on a Wire for fans of Fassbinder and science fiction, but not for many others.
Daniel Engelke is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Film & Video program. He resides in New York as a freelance writer and videographer. With expertise in French & British New Wave Cinema and Italian Neo-Realism, Daniel also works as a director and intern for Edward Bass Films.
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