Sit back and enjoy the simulation: Klaus Löwitsch in Fassbinder’s dystopic sci-fi flick. (Image courtesy of MoMA.)
When German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder died of a lethal combo of sleeping pills and cocaine (don’t try that mix at home) in 1982, cinemaphiles lost one of the most talented and prolific directors in movie history. At the forefront of the New German Cinema movement — which captivated international audiences and launched the award-winning careers of Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders — Fassbinder emerged as the enfant terrible of the group. He had a notoriously hedonistic personal life and was a prodigious filmmaker, producing more than 40 flicks in just 15 years. As a director, he had a dazzling ability to navigate historical drama, contemporary melodrama, realism, socio-political landscapes and stylistic excesses with an aplomb that we venture to guess has never been equaled on celluloid. Yes, we loves us some Rainer!
So, it was with great anticipation and a remarkably clear head that we ventured out to catch a screening of his little-seen venture into the realm of sci-fi — namely, his 1973 mini-opus for German television, World on a Wire. The film recently underwent a glorious restoration which premiered at the 60th Annual Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year (where Fassbinder’s longtime combative muse, the great German actress Hanna Schygulla, was honored with a lifetime achievement award). Beginning this Wednesday, April 14th, it will have a brief run at MoMA — which gave us the opportunity to see what the fuss was all about.
Simply put, Fassbinder has done it again. His adaptation of American author Daniel F. Galouve’s Simulacron-3 is hardly groundbreaking for its man-versus-machine themes or for its portrayal of a dystopian society where the future looks shiny and new, but harbors dark secrets. As a sci-fi flick, it is clearly stuck in the early 70’s: there are computers the size of a small rhino and special effects that would make Steve Austin proud. Yet, we were mesmerized. Perhaps it was the set, filled with shimmering modular furniture. Or maybe it was Fassbinder’s homage to one of his cinematic idols Douglas Sirk, making heavy use of reflective surfaces to frame the relationships between his characters. Or maybe we had just been hankering for a time when film directors used imagination, timing and composition to tell a story — without having it end up looking like a video game. (James Cameron, we’re looking at you.)
Whatever spell it wove, World on a Wire succeeds in spite of its shortcomings. Certainly the central performance by Klaus Löwitsch is two ticks shy of William Shatner territory, but as a man bordering on insanity when he realizes that his life and world may all be an elaborate “matrix” of make believe, he must be given points for his zeal. The story line is aided handsomely by the early work of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who presents a world of polish and allure in which cold, inanimate machines threaten to rob people of what precious little humanity they may possess. Fassbinder reaps pleasure from over-the-top excesses: a buxom blonde secretary who is too good to be true, the ominous electronic score, the visual homage to Marlene Dietrich and Carol Reed’s masterpiece of paranoia The Third Man. All of these elements combined result in a three-hour-plus mini-opus that glides by on visual splendor and subversive flourishes. And that is the real joy of World on a Wire — watching bad boy Fassbinder delight in his work.
Note: If for some ungodly reason you are unfamiliar with the Fassbinder oeuvre…and we simply cannot imagine why you would be, you must rent: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, The Marriage of Maria Braun and Berlin Alexanderplatz! (You can skip his last flick, his over-the-top adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle — unless you have a penchant for Jeanne Moreau and anal rape…)