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Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1973
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny, Barbara Valentin
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes, nudity)
Run Time: 03h:33m:25s
Genre(s): foreign

“You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” - Professor Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven)


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This is one of those classics of foreign cinema that I've known about since I was a kid, but have never actually seen. What better way to experience all 3-plus hours of this masterpiece for the first time than via a Criterion Collection Blu-ray.

Movie Grade: A+

DVD Grade: A-

What does it mean to truly “exist?” Of course we all know the actual definition of the word, but what if you suddenly found out that there’s even the slightest possibility that this world you’ve spent your entire life in wasn’t even real, let alone your own physical being. That’s the plight that the protagonist in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic epic, World on a Wire. Released in 1973, and initially shown on German television, Fassbinder’s 213-minute film was restored in 2010 by the Fassbinder Foundation and shown initially at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, then in a limited number of theaters. Fassbinder, who died of a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 37, was a rebellious figure throughout his filmmaking career, a trait which often translated into his films. This is definitely the case with World on a Wire, a film full of themes, ideas, and even entire filmed sequences, that have clearly influenced numerous films made in the last 40 years, including The Matrix, Primer, and even, to a lesser extent, Tron. The Criterion Collection brings the 2010 restored version of this monumental sci- fi drama to Blu-ray, and the results are fantastic, with excellent audio and video, and a few supplements that give us a nice insight into Fassbinder and the numerous themes at play in World on a Wire.

Sometime in the near future, the government has created a supercomputer, the Simulacron, within which they have crafted a separate world filled with virtual beings that see themselves as “real” humans. Often modeled as replicas of people in the “real” world, these computer models inhabit this world as if it is the only one in existence. Simulacron was designed at the Institute for Cybernetics, which is headed up by Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau). At a party thrown by Siskins, the man currently responsible for the Simulacron, Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), abruptly leaves and is found dead. Enter Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), Vollmer’s assistant and close friend, who is appointed by Siskins to take over the supervision of Simulacron. Soon after the head of security, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny) tells Stiller of his suspicions that foul play was involved in Vollmer’s death, Lause disappears, to the extent that Stiller is the only one who remembers that he ever even existed. By now, Stiller’s attitude about things has changed considerably and he will stop at nothing to find the truth about the Simulacron and what truly is “reality.”

Watching a three-hour-plus film can be a daunting task for even the most avid cinema buff, myself included. Fortunately, World on a Wire moves at such a brisk pace that you’re never aware that you’re watching something so lengthy. Fassbinder interweaves each and every scene so quickly that you’re always engaged in even the seemingly small, inconsequential sequences. See, that’s Fassbinder’s trick, none of the sequences are inconsequential, as all of them contain integral information regarding the often complex, always twisty story that he’s trying to tell. Turning away from the screen for even a moment can prove catastrophic in your total understanding of the film, but rest assured that the final payoff is more than worth the concentrated effort. Plus, there’s more than enough fun to be had simply in finding the scenes that so clearly influenced today’s sci-fi filmmakers. I’m confident that subsequent viewings will result in the discovery of even more influential bits, but the ones you’ll see during an initial screening are pretty startling.

It can’t be easy to be an actor in a film that is not only so lengthy, but so complex as well. Thankfully, each actor pulls off his or her performance swimmingly, anchored by Stiller, himself, Klaus Löwitsch, who is extremely compelling throughout. Löwitsch is asked to play a level-headed, albeit, possibly in over his head, executive at first, and then gradually morph into a possibly insane man questioning his own true existence by the end. He’s more than believable at both extremes, commanding a stern, professional presence in the beginning, and towing the line between campy, over-the-top craziness and genuinely making the audience feel sorry for him by the end of the film. Löwitsch is surrounded by excellent performances as well, with Vosgerau portraying Siskins as the slimy, gangster-esque overlord that he clearly strives to be, and making us hate him every time he appears. This is one of the truly unsung villainous performances in sci-fi cinema. Also doing great work are Barbara Valentin as secretary/possible-spy, Gloria Fromm and Mascha Rabben as Henry Vollmer’s daughter, Eva. Velantin’s performance is a tough one, as Gloria is a chameleonic figure, changing loyalties around nearly every turn, but, in the end, playing a crucial role in the highly satisfying finale. Rabben’s Eva also plays a huge part when all is said and done, but Valentin is slightly better as a one-dimensional sex object at first who turns into a huge emotional component in the end.

The aforementioned final sequence is one that I kicked myself for not seeing coming from a mile away. It’s a testament to Fassbinder’s genius that he was able to craft such a compelling finale when it seems, during the film’s last hour, that there was a limited number of ways that his story could go. During the final scene, he uses a method to repeatedly cut back and forth between the same two scenes, albeit at different camera perspectives each time, which is brilliantly executed and gives this sequence even more heft than it would have had otherwise. From beginning to end, World on a Wire is an often criminally forgotten science fiction masterpiece. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray disc brings the recently restored film to us in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Almost everything looks great, from excellent contrast levels to wonderful color rendering, with the only remaining blemishes being a handful of marks, usually near the bottom of the screen, that weren’t (more than likely couldn’t have been) removed during the restoration process. The lone audio mix is German LPCM 1.0, and it features a vast improvement in the dynamic range department over previous home video releases, as well as crystal clear dialogue throughout. Supplements include the trailer for the 2010 theatrical release of World on a Wire and a 35-minute interview with German film scholar Gerd Gemunden, during which he discusses this film, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career. We also get the 51-minute documentary Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire”: Looking Ahead to Today, which was directed by Juliane Lorenz, and takes an in-depth look at the making of this unforgettable film.

Posted by: Chuck Aliaga - March 9, 2012, 6:45 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: paranoid, inventive, future

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