Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Decades before The Matrix, a German director leapt through the looking glass

Illustration for article titled Decades before The Matrix, a German director leapt through the looking glass

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Transcendence has us scanning our memory banks in search of the best technophobic thrillers.


World On A Wire (1973)

Before Inception, before The Matrix, before Open Your Eyes, there was World On A Wire, a 1973 science-fiction mindbender made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for German television. Largely unavailable for decades, the film resurfaced in 2010, a restored print allowing cinephiles to marvel at a missing link in the evolution of existential thrillers. It’s the type of film that gets described in retrospect as “ahead of its time,” but that scarcely does justice to its eerie prescience—as both an early example of the realities-within-realities genre, and as a vision of computers as tools for artificial living. The philosophical questions go back at least as far as Descartes, but World On A Wire has to be one of the first works to wrap them in the fresh anxieties of the technological age.

In truth, the project’s roots—or chords, perhaps more appropriately—extend into the previous decade, to Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3. (The book was also the basis for The Thirteenth Floor, which somehow looks less relevant today, despite coming out 25 years later.) Fairly faithfully, Fassbinder adapts the story of Dr. Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a researcher who works for a tech institute that’s created a digital simulation of reality, populated by some 9,000 “identity units” that have no idea they’re not real. Coming onto the project when his predecessor dies a mysterious death, Stiller becomes embroiled in a vast conspiracy after he witnesses a colleague literally disappear into thin air; his grip on sanity begins to slip when everyone around him expresses no memory of the missing man. Do answers lie with the faux-humans inside the machine, who he can interact with using a kind of primitive ancestor of the Inception technology?

Essentially a dystopian detective yarn, World On A Wire is slow to go, and—at almost four hours—a little longer than it probably needed to be. Yet Fassbinder, diving into sci-fi for the first and only time, sustains a sense of mounting paranoia over the film’s languid running time (stretched across two installments that aired on consecutive nights). The director’s fabricated world, like that of Godard’s Alphaville, is more hyper-modern than futuristic. But that only mirrors the reality-questioning nature of his material, as does his signature use of reflective surfaces. (As in many of Fassbinder’s films, identity is a crucial topic.) As for the big “twist,” which arrives right at the breaking point between Part 1 and Part 2, it won’t surprise anyone familiar with the more recent movies listed up top. The horror of Stiller’s predicament, however, is more potent than ever, as the actual world inches closer to the one depicted on screen. When our Sims or Second Life avatars gain consciousness, we’ll know it’s time to start wondering what mouse-click commands we’re obeying.

Availability: World On A War is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to stream (in two parts) on Hulu Plus.