In the original treatment for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of Thirteen Moons, doomed transsexual Elvira reads American science fiction writer Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel Simulacron-3 and comes to agree with its premise, that "the world in which she finds herself is only a rough model for a higher world." As with so many of the sources to which Fassbinder felt extraordinarily close—Berlin Alexanderplatz, The World as Will and Representation, the films of Douglas Sirk—Simulacron-3 functions as a sort of ur-narrative for the filmmaker's brutally despairing worldview: a quintessential Fassbinder protagonist, Elvira discovers herself trapped in a damaged and damaging society—only appropriate she should relate to a theory of life as ersatz and ultimately derivative of a better, unobtainable one.
So it's all the more surprising that World on a Wire, Fassbinder's two-part 1973 German television adaptation of Simulacron-3 (screened theatrically only once before in the U.S.), less enriches than demystifies this ur-narrative's influence on the obsessions and preoccupations of the enfant terrible director. Its plot anticipates what would become a Hollywood cottage industry of similarly themed actioners (Total Recall, The Matrix): in charge of a nefarious, corporate industry-abetting cybernetic institute's Simulacron program—an artificial reality populated by "identity units" that believe they're human—scientist Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) slowly realizes he himself is a simulation in a simulated world where those wise to their spurious condition can be instantly erased from existence. Fassbinder initially evokes in his signature disorienting/distancing style the unheimlich quality of Stiller's surroundings (not all that different from those of modern environments), especially in mirror-dependent compositions that metamorphose and rearrange character relations via complex, hypnotically measured tracking shots. Filmed through glass walls, globes, and oddly patterned partitions, the inhabitants of Simulacron-2 rarely seem stranded in an archaically kitschy retro-future but instead appear as estranged beings in an estranged netherworld.
Yet when drawn out over almost three and a half hours that netherworld loses much of its disturbing, parabolic power. Once Stiller discovers his universe to be just as phony as his super-computer's, World on a Wire becomes mired in tension-less suspense scenes and plodding chases—despite some irreverent personal touches (an escape into a cabaret blends sounds and images from WW II ballad "Lili Marleen," Sternberg's Dishonored, and Elvis' "Trouble"), such unironic genre concessions don't exactly play to Fassbinder's strength as bitter critic of contemporary society. Nevertheless, World on a Wire shouldn't be entirely dismissed as a minor curiosity in a short but bogglingly prodigious career, lost among 1972-1974 masterpieces The Merchant of Four Seasons, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. It's at least worth its brilliant first half, in which Fassbinder makes eerily palpable the tenuous nature of identity in all of his unsure wire-worlds: "You are nothing more than the image others have made of you."
April 14-19 at MoMA