World on a Wire, a three-and-a-half hour sci-fi noir by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, has been seen very little over the years. It was made as a two-part special for German television in 1973 and was only screened in the U.S. at a few select theaters. The film never received much attention from audiences or critics at the time, but in 2010, it was ‘rediscovered’ and a restored print has been released by Criterion earlier this year. Because I love dystopian science fiction films and I had never seen a Fassbinder movie, I decided to go out on a limb and buy the two-disc DVD version of the film.
The review that follows contains my immediate thoughts after my first viewing of the movie. Because the most intriguing sequences of World on a Wire are the plot twists that are revealed at the end of the first and second parts, it is near impossible to fully express the genius of the film without disclosing spoilers. So I will focus on the movie’s other aspects and stay away from any major plot points as best I can.
Fassbinder’s film is easily labelled science-fiction, but it lacks prominent special effects. The events take place somewhere in the future, but it looks a lot like the 1970s. However, the look is not why World on a Wire is an important movie. What I found most fascinating about the movie, and what most everyone today will enjoy most about it, are the intellectual and philosophical ideas that its story presents.
Those ideas usually center on reality and man’s existence in a way that is recognizably similar to those in the Wachowski brother’s The Matrix. But while the Wachowskis’ film had its innovations, I found World on a Wire to be a much more enveloping picture. Fassbinder and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, create a unique futuristic atmosphere with an almost obsessive use of mirrors and glass windows. Some shots leave us wondering if we are looking at a reflection or the real image, which interestingly enough, is also the question that Fred Stiller, the movie’s protagonist, asks for nearly the entire duration of the narrative.
World is often criticized for its length, but I believe that taking a break in the middle makes the film much more bearable. Since I actually have little trouble enjoying movies with run times around three hours, I didn’t find the movie boring or long-winded, though others easily could. However, I felt that the movie benefited from all that time.
At the end, I looked back on the rest of the film and it didn’t seem like it necessarily needed to be so lengthy, but it is still excellently thought through. Fassbinder definitely took the scenic route in framing his labyrinthine plot, yet I still appreciated the beauty and originality of the twists and turns.
So World on a Wire is not a perfect film, though I really wanted it to be. It’s not the greatest of science fiction films, but it expands the idea of a dystopian sci-fi to an epic level. There is skill in its craftsmanship, there is originality in its philosophy, and I loved watching its ideas stretch as far as they could. I’m sure I will be revisiting the film several more times and I’m certainly glad that I bought it. Although I’m sure those who are not so patient might find World to be less than intriguing, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to science fiction fans.