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Indie Focus: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's sci-fi 'World on a Wire'

The 1973 German TV miniseries, largely unavailable since its original broadcast, comes to LACMA.

August 14, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Fred Stiller (Klaus Lwitsch) is a cybernetics engineer who uncovers a massive conspiracy that involves computer-generated virtual realities in "World on a Wire."
Fred Stiller (Klaus Lwitsch) is a cybernetics engineer who uncovers a massive… (Janus Films )

Long before such filmmakers as Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes began shifting between theatrical features and work made for television, Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder was crafting groundbreaking TV with projects including his epic 1980 miniseries "Berlin Alexanderplatz."

Another of his made-for-TV films, 1973's two-part, 3 1/2-hour science-fiction head-spinner "World on a Wire," is enjoying a resurgent wave of interest. The film had been more or less lost to audiences after its initial German broadcast because of issues with the underlying literary rights, but a new restoration is finally making "World on a Wire" accessible to a generation of enthusiastic cinéastes.

Based on the novel "Simulacron 3" by Daniel F. Galouye and co-written by Fassbinder and Fritz Müller-Scherz, the film is part detective thriller, part deconstruction of personal identity and part futuristic fortune-telling. In its journey through the looking-glass into an unstable world of computer-generated virtual realities, it is a prescient forerunner to such films as "Blade Runner," "Tron," "The Matrix" and "Avatar."

A restored version of the film premiered at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival and was acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection; "World on a Wire" will be shown publicly in Los Angeles for the first time Friday and Saturday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"It's a landmark in the genre, essentially the first film to depict a computer-generated virtual reality," said Brian Belovarac of Janus Films, the company distributing "World on a Wire" in the U.S.

An engineer (Klaus Löwitsch) goes searching for a friend who has gone missing and finds himself drawn into a corporate conspiracy that includes a shifting, uncertain maze of computer-created realities. With its agile moving camera work and dazzling use of mirrors and reflections in nearly every scene, the film pulls back layer after layer, the narrative revealing itself as Löwitsch's character gets closer and closer to a dark truth.

"It was very much ahead of its time," said Laurence Kardish, senior curator in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art. "I think the book obviously sparked this idea to Fassbinder before anybody else ran with it, and he was very keen on it."

The digital restoration of "World on a Wire," struck from the original 16mm reversal film (meaning there was no negative, only the original filmstrip that ran through the camera), was spearheaded by Juliane Lorenz, head of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, and supervised by the film's cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus.

Fassbinder died in 1982 at age 37 having already made more than 40 films, leaving behind a body of work that is staggering in its breadth and vitality. In a 1980 review of his film "The Third Generation," an acerbic satire of countercultural revolution, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby declared, "There can no longer be any doubt about it: Rainer Werner Fassbinder is the most dazzling, talented, provocative, original, puzzling, prolific and exhilarating filmmaker of his generation. Anywhere."

If the common thumbnail sketch of Fassbinder is as a maker of socially charged melodramas such as 1972's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," 1974's "Ali: Fear Eats The Soul" or 1979's "The Marriage of Maria Braun," the reappearance of "World on a Wire" with its head-trip sci-fi trappings finds the filmmaker in unexpected territory.

"I liked the idea a lot because it was something different. He was always good for a surprise," said Ballhaus, who after collaborating with Fassbinder on 16 films went on to a career in Hollywood that included three Oscar nominations as cinematographer and work on such films as "Broadcast News," "Goodfellas" and "The Departed."

With production design by Kurt Raab, a frequent Fassbinder collaborator who also appears in the film as an actor, "World on a Wire" was shot largely in Paris to take advantage of the city's existing buildings. The film explicitly nods to the similar architectural estrangement of Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film "Alphaville" by casting that film's star, Eddie Constantine, in a small role.

"All the exteriors were shot in Paris because they were the most modern buildings in those days," Ballhaus said. "In Germany there wasn't that much modern architecture. All the restaurants and locations were very different than in Germany, and we wanted it to look very different from what we knew as home."

Although the reemergence of "World on a Wire" provides a new view onto Fassbinder, the filmmaker nevertheless found space for familiar ideas within the framework of forward-looking sci-fi, according to at least one collaborator.

"'World on a Wire' actually fits quite well into Fassbinder's body of work," said Müller-Scherz via email, "because also in this film there is one main theme, which lies at the center of all his films: power, dependence, manipulation and the exploitation of feelings."

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