Looking back at World On A Wire

Aliya revisits Fassbinder's 1970s sci-fi World On A Wire, and finds it eerily prescient...

Imagine a world where people are constructs. They live inside a virtual reality, never realising that everything is false. But some people in this virtual world know the truth, and they come and go, moving through the simulation using telephone wires. They are looking for answers to the questions – Are we sharing this reality? What would happen to all these constructed people if this version of life was to fail? 

This isn’t The Matrix. This is World on a Wire, made in 1973 for West German television by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, before there were home computers, mobile phones, faxes, scanners, or an internet. It’s science fiction at its best, pushing our imaginations to the limit, and making a point about the current world in the process. What’s astonishing is how much World on a Wire got right. 

Henry Vollmer is the project leader for Simulacron, a computer program that creates a virtual reality in which people, known as units, live, work, love and die. Simulacron is not just an experiment; it has commercial aspects, and can be used to predict growth in the economy. There is a battle in the boardroom over whether the financial possibilities, and the people within the simulation, should be exploited. 

When Vollmer is murdered, his replacement, Doctor Fred Stiller, becomes embroiled in the mystery behind his death, the subsequent boardroom machinations, and the sudden disappearance of a co-worker. Stiller seeks answers both in his world and in the virtual reality world, moving between the two, finding no help from the police or the blank-eyed secretaries of his office who watch him with disinterest. He suffers from headaches and begins to lose patches of time. As these attacks grow worse he realises that Siskins, the head of the company, is hiding a secret about Simulacron that will place Stiller’s life in danger.

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This is a long, verbose film (212 minutes), and it needs commitment from the viewer to really engage with the ideas behind it. It starts with the languid sound of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross, and the camera spends a lot of time circling people as they talk. The men discuss business in white and orange offices, or in blue underground bars with built-in swimming pools. There’s no sense of an outside for most of the film, or of a geographical location to the action. The conversation weaves around, as does the camera, in a world of architecture and fashion that is both futuristic and undeniably retro. Some might say the look of it dates the film, but I think the design adds another layer of meaning. It looks familiar yet challenging, like in a Kubrick film – in the way that the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange (1971) is challenging. We revaluate the everyday nature of the tables, the chairs, the dresses and the shoes. 

The role of women in the film is a large part of this. They are there only to be either secretaries or sex objects, with thick make-up and voluminous hairstyles, and nothing of interest to say. The objectification of the feminine makes sense here – this is a virtual world shaped entirely by the men who run it. They set the parameters, and their idea of the role of women is very unsettling. The only female character who breaks this mould is, fittingly, the daughter of Vollmer, the main creator. The use of mirrors is key to the alienation we are meant to feel from this male-orientated world. Mirrors are everywhere, reflecting different levels of meaning. People talk to each other through their reflections, trying to find a plane on which they can properly communicate. Apparently Fassbinder was a fan of Douglas Sirk’s films, and you can see the influence here. In Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), where the daughter of the housemaid looks into the mirror and wishes black could be white, there is the need to make the reflection tell a different truth.


But Sirk and Kubrick aren’t the only influences here. Fassbinder truly loved cinema, which he claimed took the place of a family life for him in his youth, and you get the feeling he had reached an innate understanding of it, and deliberately referenced it. The circling camera reminds you of Renoir, and the film has the disjointed, mocking feel of Jean Luc Godard’s sci-fi noir Alphaville (1965). In fact, actor Eddie Constantine (who played the main character in Alphaville) even makes a cameo appearance. 

I think from my description so far it’s easy to tell that this is an art film, and not an action film. The Matrix may have taken the same concept and turned it into an excuse for a car chase and a punch up (And why not? In an existentialist virtual reality you might as well have fun) but this is a much more philosophical experience, asking big questions without the need to fall back on spoon bending. That’s not to say there isn’t excitement, particularly in the latter half of the film when Stiller goes on the run, but Fassbinder keeps your attention very much on the conceptual – how can you accept what you see, in person or on a screen, as real? How can you emotionally invest in a world you don’t believe in? There’s a great moment where Stiller watches the screens that reflect the virtual world, and sees Siskins there, tap-dancing to an audience and then physically attacking a nun to applause. Is that acceptable because Stiller is watching it, rather than living in that world? Does that mean it’s acceptable for us to watch it too?

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We can only imagine how mind-blowing this film was in the 1970s, but in the age of the internet, World on a Wire becomes more meaningful than ever before. We find these questions profoundly difficult to deal with, and Fassbinder nails that disquieting feeling that everything is, at heart, utterly unimportant. Look at the blank stares of the swimsuit models and look at the interior design of the office blocks. Is this really real? 

Fassbinder made a great film in World on a Wire, and now, 40 years later, it’s become a timely one. This is the line where science fiction becomes reality, and maybe that means this film isn’t science fiction after all. It’s horror. 

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