Made for West German television, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 3½-hour Welt am Draht is based on American novelist Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 Simulacron-3. Resembling Edward Albee’s astounding play Tiny Alice, which was first produced the same year as Galouye’s novel was published, Fassbinder’s legendary science-fiction masterpiece revolves around Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch, convincing and compelling), technical director at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology, who comandeers Simulacron-3, a state-sponsored computer project aimed at creating a “miniature artificial reality,” ostensibly to predict various trends in society, such as in consumerism and transportation. However, the question arises, once some headway has been made, which is the original dimension and which is the copy, which the “reality” and which the “replica.” To put the question differently, is “virtual reality” an invention or a discovery? Strange things, let me tell you, have been going on at the Institute, where Stiller’s predecessor—well, who is to say what happened to him? He dematerialized—disappeared.
Leaning, stylistically, beautifully (although less romantically) on Jean-Luc Godard’s immemorial Alphaville (1965), and on colorless color rather than gorgeous, haunting black and white, Fassbinder never takes a false or cheesy step; we aren’t in the trash-land here of The Matrix or Avatar. This ride is engrossing, immeasurable fun, sparked by brilliant mise-en-scène that plays visual jazz with mirror-images, for instance, beginning in the “reflection” and withdrawing the camera to reveal that what we might have thought was “substance” isn’t. Indeed, Fassbinder repeated his labyrinthine, evocative mirror-imaging, as well as his propensity here to shoot through glass, in his Despair (1978), from Nabokov. Receding multiple reflections in Welt am Draht pay sparkling homage to the Hall of Mirrors in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).
Are we mere “identity units” in a computerized “reality”? Stay tuned.
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