Simulacron-3 is a pioneering supercomputer which has been developed by German scientists, and a government minister has arrived today to be guided through its innovations and ultimate purpose. However, what he gets is the machine's designer in a very strange mood, encouraging the minister to look in a mirror to grasp the concept of the artificial world the computer has concocted, all with the hope it can predict the future in industrial terms, therefore saving potentially a huge amount of money. But that designer grows so manic he has to be escorted away - and soon after is found, having seemingly attacked the computer, and been left by it for dead...
If you have seen the nineties science fiction effort The Thirteenth Floor, you will have some notion of what was going on in World on a Wire, the sole work in the science fiction genre ever directed by the prolific cult filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, though towards the end of his life, he took the lead in a different director's sci-fi effort, Kamikaze 89, which also adopted the "use whatever looks good and is to hand" approach for manufacturing the futuristic mood. Mind you, even if you have seen that nineties remake of this, or rather adaptation of the same Daniel F. Galouye novel, you might have a hard time remembering the finer details, as thanks to The Matrix it didn't linger in the memory.
Mind you, if you arrived at most "virtual reality" science fiction (for want of a better phrase) expecting kung fu combat a-plenty, you would be disappointed, and this far back in the filmed variation there was certainly not going to be a bunch of extended action sequences to offset the "is it a game or is it real" philosophising. The closest you would get would be something like the fake world of Westerns as in the now-forgotten effort Welcome to Blood City, and even that was a Westworld knock-off. Fassbinder was more informed by the proto-spy shenanigans of Fritz Lang's Doctor Mabuse films, and their follow-ups, a very German set of adventures with intrigue and deception.
Quite who was the Mabuse character in this miniseries was concealed till the last half hour, but guessable: even the revelation that all was not as it seemed was left for the cliffhanger of part one, rather than obvious from the start. Except these days, post-Matrix and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV and the whole phenomenon of computer gaming, for that matter, it really was obvious from the start, with only the fact that the simulation was not a game at all, but a social experiment driven by capitalism and control, marking it as an indicator this subgenre still had some way to go to catch up with the idea of computers as a mode of escapism. Our hero, programmer Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), has not been contributing to a Grand Theft Auto-style immersive entertainment, and that lends a sinister edge.
The lack of action, at least in the first half, can make World on a Wire (or Welt am Draht to give it its original title) come across as very talky as Fassbinder was more interested in building his environment from the basic tools he had at his disposal: modern (for the nineteen-seventies) architecture for a chilly, futuristic look, glamourous dresses for the women for a retro, forties noir appearance (the Golden Age of Hollywood informs invented, dreamlike scenarios in science fiction and fantasy to this day), and an abundance of knick-knacks and baubles to adorn his sets to keep the frame busy and captivating amidst the acres of earnest dialogue. It made sense that Eddie Constantine should show up in a Rolls Royce, as anyone on the Continent in 1973 would have grown up with his two-fisted spy or detective fictions that the computer begins to incorporate, for we discover its programmer may be insane, a terrific concept that Fassbinder runs with to relentlessly paranoid effect. Music, lots of electronics, by Gottfried Hüngsberg.
[Those extra features on Second Sight's special edition Blu-ray:
No Strings Attached - an interview with assistant director Renate Leiffer
Observing Fassbinder a tribute to photographer Peter Gauhe
Looking Ahead to Today documentary
Original Broadcast Recap
The Simulation Argument an interview with Professor Nick Bostrom
Optional English subtitles.]