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Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "World on a Wire"

World on a Wire

Before World on a Wire are the Borges-quoting computer from Alphaville and Fritz Lang's notion of worlds above and below (in M and the "Tiger" films, say), down the road are Blade Runner, Baudrillard's "machines for making nothingness," eXistenZ. More than a crossroads of references and influences, however, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s newly restored, made-for-TV 1973 epic is a distillation of the German New Waver's thematic and stylistic motifs into genre form, both jolting and narcotizing. The genre is not science-fiction but film noir, as in The American Soldier; and it's not a futuristic world, for, as with Godard, the future is now: what we see is the 1973 Munich of systematic anxiety and glassy corporate offices, when the German Emergency Acts were still fresh in the collective mind and big steel companies could lurk as shadowy forces in the background. Rather, it's a world of realities constructed and punctured in which people literally plug into alternate identities and delete each other, a maze of cabarets, dolls, screens within screens and double- and triple-sided mirrors that's ideal for Fassbinder's caustic view of human interaction and exploitation. It's the "utopian joke" of switching minds, as one malevolent suit puts it, which becomes a cruel joke as the catatonically paranoid scientist (Klaus Lowitsch) drifts through layers of simulacra—Phillip Marlowe as a renegade microchip in a large, corrupt computer, "right now I'm just a bunch of electronic circuits." Other jokes include a dance floor filled exclusively with black weightlifters and topless Aryan fembots, a reenactment of Sternberg's Dishonored (Dietrich before the shooting squad), and glimpses into the characters' private virtual projections (sometimes they're Weimar dandies, other times they're working-class truckers, and then they're tap-dancers in a silvery-ghostly musical). But what of the miracle (is there another word for it?) of the transcendental finale—another joke, or a sudden, romantic flash from a pugnacious modernist who could fill the screen with barrier after Brechtian barrier and still make us cry for the elderly cleaning lady by her lover's bedside and the battered transvestite baring his soul in the abbatoir?

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