“What do you see? You are nothing more than the image others have made of you. That’s all.” – Henry Vollmer
Henry Vollmer is a bit off his rocker in the opening moments of World on a Wire. He is the technical director of a computer project called Simulacron, a program designed to replicate an entire world in full detail. Moments later, he’s dead.
This bleak, existential science fiction picture was my first exposure to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German filmmaker who challenged moviegoers and never adapted to cinema. It certainly won’t be my last.
Vollmer’s quote (above) comes after he asks the secretary of state, who is overlooking the project from a national perspective, what he sees when he looks into a mirror. Mirrors are a major part of Fassbinder’s film, filling almost every scene and shot in a manipulated and meaningful way that is supposed to make you wonder.
With a film subject about multiple realities, where characters ponder their own existence, it’s clear to see that the mirrors that inhabit Fassbinder’s film are no accident. They reflect mimicked life. We look into mirrors and see a projection. We are what we have been made into by ourselves, but mostly by others. What a person sees when they look at you is how you are seen to the world, not what you see when you look at yourself. Fassbinder uses this as both a meaningful, thematic and stylistic approach to his telling of this story. Certain “hall of mirror” imagery is some of the best work I’ve seen in a long time.
This two-part masterpiece follows Fred Stiller, the replacement for Vollmer. After taking over as technical director of Simulacron, Stiller finds himself spiraling deeper and deeper into a paranoia-fueled conspiracy about his own world’s existence and puts him on a quest to not only learn more about his own project, but to figure out more about Vollmer’s death with the aide of his daughter, Eva Vollmer.
But none of his efforts come without great strife from his surroundings. They all seem predestined to cause him trouble. Journalists ask questions, his supervisors do whatever they can to get in his way and the police eventually hunt him down. Stiller is a marked man.
The prolific question throughout World on a Wire is whether or not Stiller is right in thinking he’s a projected creation from a computer program above him (like the one he controls below him) or if he’s losing his mind and going insane. He’s remembering and talking about people that other people claim never existed and recounting moments others don’t remember. His struggles are the hardest part of the film to cope with, because we ourselves are left wondering and struggling right along with Stiller. He is a brooding, painful “hero” to be witness of.
Fassbinder released this film for television in 1973. It’s amazingly ahead of its time in both execution and idea. Its concept has been done again and again (The Matrix comes to mind), but Fassbinder lands on some steady moral and existential ground that really makes it a worthwhile and thought-provoking film. It left me questioning our own world’s existence to a certain extent immediately after the final credits ran down my screen. I was startled and awed by the ideas presented by Stiller’s character to the audience.
It’s also a seemingly prophetic film. It’s warning about technology and computers and too much playing of God resounds on all levels. Scientifically we are now close to being able to manipulate offspring. We can choose what their reflection to the world should be. With computers we can create avatars and false identities. We are deep within this culture and it all happens without a second thought. None of us are who we appear to be when we communicate online. The computer is full of both joy and strife, but I think Fassbinder’s film is a worthwhile reminder to keep things in check. Who knows how far we can progress?
World on a Wire burns through its 200 plus minutes with question after question. It ponders the great saying “I think, therefore I am.” It even agrees with it. Stiller thinks, he exists. But does he really? The answer to these questions (and the non-answers to others) will leave you wanting more out of Fassbinder. Fortunately, 200 minutes is enough to satiate most thinking minds to a point where the rest can be completed on your own.
If you’re a fan of the atmospheric, mysterious and enigmatic science fiction films (like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris) you will find yourself deep within the world of World on a Wire. Fassbinder has created a film both challenging and provocative to the mind and pleasing to the eyes. A must watch.