Monday, September 3, 2012

World on a Wire - Fassbinder (1973)

Following the BFI's Sight & Sound poll, I'm exploring the highbrow fancypants world of film one at a time throughout September... and then blogging about it.

I first heard about this lost gem of weirdness from Salon when it was re-released last year.

Welt Am Draht (1973)
World on a Wire (Welt am Draht)
dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 1973, West Germany.
Roger Ebert's movie review ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus

World on a Wire trailer (2011 re-release)

The only Fassbinder I'd ever seen was Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, S&S #93), a used/rental Criterion DVD purchased from a going-out-of-business Cactus Music & Video - thankfully, since reborn. While that Sirk-ian melodrama sounds more typical of his movie-making, this one's a whole other thing: a PK Dick-Vonnegut-Kubrick-ian sci-fi headtrip epic. Two things I didn't realize going into this: (1) it was a two-parter TV movie, and (2) it's 3½ hours long!

World on a
So, yeah. The story moves fairly slowly, almost hypnotically. Turn off your subtitles, relax, and float downstream. It's not that nothing happens, just that Fassbinder seems more interested in filming sleek early-'70s auto design, groovy decor and sumptuous interiors. O, and so many mirrors! Every once in awhile, you'll visit some freaky-deaky cabaret / nightclub / dinner theatre. Or just an art-deco pool party - be sure to wear your suit padded with fake muscles. But the majority of Part 1 occurs in the ultra-modern offices of IKZ (das Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung, the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology). Various somethings are afoot, death and disappearance, problems with identity unit 0001 ("Einstein"), Ali is on security detail, the boss acts like kind of a jerk, the old conflict between the purity of scientific research and the commercial potential from the practical applications of that work.

Nice, unexpected use of Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" as well...

I didn't really get to write too much about Alphaville in the back half of yesterday's Godard post, but one reason for choosing it was that it seemed a nice thematic transition into World on a Wire. Having never seen either of these movies, I couldn't have been more right. Not only are there thematic similarities, especially in each's core idea of a computer-controlled world... But the stylistic focus on interiors and design elements also carries over, although Godard used a deep noir-ish B&W, and Fassbinder's color scheme is kaleidoscopic bordering on garish. And structurally, both make fairly striking breaks in tone about halfway through. For this one, Part 2 moves away from mystery & intrigue over to more of an action/chase scenario. Also, there ends up being quite a bit of Sirk-ian melodrama after all - with all the secrets, love interests, suspicions, double-crosses, and the like.

on a Wire
I was really hoping that "Finnish poetess Araba Suukoonen" was real (like Jean Parvulesco in Breathless), but sadly not. Anyway, things get pretty crazy as our hero learns more about his grim fate. In making his escape from IKZ, he has a breakdown in a hallway that can be nothing other than a bright-line homage to the ending of Alphaville. Sports cars go flying through the city streets in chase. Once he makes it to his cabin in the woods, he finally has his sniper rifle! But he then gets attacked by a shape-shifting German Shepherd (what are they called in Germany?), then a tree, and then a giant explosion probably triggered by a tropical bird.

Sorry, maybe I should have ***SPOILER***'ed all that.

Dazed and confused, the hero stands in the road flagging down traffic. He's finally picked up by a Rolls Royce... the driver opens the door... he gets in the back seat... and sitting next to him is... Lemmy Caution!! Maybe not necessarily the character (maybe so?), but absolutely the lead actor from Alphaville. My cranium very nearly exploded. So, the movie continues to wrap up, but for me that was really the culmination. It all ends up with one last bizarre fancy-dress ball, one last making of the love (for tomorrow we die), one last shoot-out, one last switcheroo, one last "Albatross."

As the Criterion trailer says: "The Matrix before The Matrix!"

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