Plato, Science-Fiction, and WORLD ON A WIRE

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
July 7th, 2011

With a restored print making its way around art houses all over the world, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s long talked-about epic TV two-parter, WORLD ON A WIRE, may be a bit intimidating to most, but for fans of films like INCEPTION, THE MATRIX, or even to an extent AVATAR, this is a film right up that alley. However, those same people may be in for a shock. There is not much, if any, real action here; no fast-paced set pieces, and no spoon feeding of themes, with the late German auteur Fassbinder opting for a far more meditative, sophistic look at what it truly means to be real.

Drawing on a similar premise as a film like THE MATRIX, WORLD ON A WIRE is Fassbinder’s 200+ minute 1973 epic, based on a novel from American scribe Daniel F. Galouye, and finds our lead, Mr. Stiller, on the brink of a huge discovery. Following the death of a colleague, Stiller becomes aware that, simply put, this world is not a “real” world. Having themselves discovered a way to make a TRON-like computerized world, he discovers that that is exactly the same type of world that he finds himself in, with a “real” world a level above.

Yes, the premise itself is quite intimidating for the average viewer, and tossed in with a nearly 3 ½ hour runtime, and you have a film that may not be all that high on many people’s “must see” lists. However, changing that is exactly what this piece hopes to do.

First, the merits of the film itself.

Directed by Fassbinder, WORLD ON A WIRE is choc- full of many of the director’s trademark touches, along with a cavalcade of directorial flourishes. Be it a long, circular tracking shot around a table, or the placement of the camera just an inch too low, making the frame absolutely unforgettable, Fassbinder gives an otherwise really slow moving piece of naturalistic sci-fi a great sense of energy. Fassbinder re-teams with long time director of photography Michael Ballhaus for this film, and is one of the director’s more beautiful pieces. The sets really pop with Ballhaus’ neon palette, and the camera moves with such a lyrical ease that it’s really a breathtaking piece of filmmaking from a long-collaborating duo.

The performances here are also really top-notch. The film stars Klaus Lowitsch as Stiller, and while his turn may come off as a bit melodramatic, it genuinely adds quite a bit to the feature. The performance is inherently a bit over-the-top. Be it the silly expressions he makes occasionally, or the percussive nature with which he speaks, the performance is bombastic, but in a way that adds to the film instead of takes away from it. Barbara Valentin is great here as Gloria Fromm, with Ulli Lommel really stealing the show as a journalist who Fred Stiller meets later on during the film. Similarly to Fassbinder’s brilliant but intimidating BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, WORLD ON A WIRE is lengthy in runtime, but it’s not only a massively engaging in its visual style and performances, but it’s also a dense piece of philosophy blending science fiction with a subject that has sparked the human imagination since Plato.

Best described as a science-fiction take on Plato’s Theory Of Forms, the film derives directly from the philosopher.

Within the Theory Of Forms, Plato states one singular idea, which itself is at the core of WORLD ON A WIRE: this is not the real world. To Plato (or at least according to his dialogues with Socrates), the world that we ourselves live in, is simply an image or a carbon copy of sorts, of the true “real” world. Within this dialogue with Socrates, it is revealed that to him, everything that we see is nothing more than an abstract take on an unseen “type” of entity. Take the car that you, your neighbor, or anyone around you owns. That car is indeed “a car,” but according to this theory, it’s not “the” car. The actual car is an unseen and unchanging being that allows for the thing that you and I see to exist. Another example of this would be the idea of multiple universes. In the opening of SLACKER, Richard Linklater’s characters spouts off a dream he recently had in which he began thinking that each of the decisions you and I make ultimately lead to various other realities. These realities, born out of one unchanging reality, can be considered a “type” of being, at the biggest of possible scales.

To understand this is to deeply understand the world of WORLD ON A WIRE. The narrative is, at its core, as much of a piece of Socratic or Plato theory as THE MATRIX is, and is one of the richest pieces of science fiction that cinema has to offer. Best described as not only an adaptation of a novel but also of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, WORLD ON A WIRE is a thought-provoking masterpiece from one of cinema’s most prolific filmmakers (Fassbinder helmed 40+ features before dying at the age of 37), and a stunning piece of both cinema and human philosophy.

WORLD ON A WIRE is currently available to watch on The Criterion Collection’s Hulu Plus page. Subscribe here, and receive two free weeks.

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