Have you ever heard of Plato’s allegory of the cave? For those of you who have; whoops, there goes the rest of my review. For those of you that haven’t, the basics of Plato’s allegory describes a group of people chained in a cave facing a blank wall. Behind them, a fire burns and objects pass in front of it, casting long shadows on the wall. The prisoners watch these shadows, name them and thus this becomes their reality. That is until one of their number escapes and discovers that these shadows aren’t reality, merely the manufactured and distorted silhouettes of their true forms. The freed prisoner is able to leave the cave and experience the true nature of existence instead of the manufactured distortion. However upon returning the other prisoners do not wish the freedom the other has, as their manufactured reality is all they’ve known; for better or worse they are unwilling to accept what is beyond the cave.
And now I’ve given this basic overview of Plato’s cave; whoops, there goes the rest of my review.
The cave allegory has become something of a staple of the sci-fi genre, especially since the 1970’s and the arrival of Cassette Futurism aesthetic. To varying degrees, most of the films that deal with virtual worlds and computer realities are rooted in the cave idea. We can see this in The Matrix and eXistenZ (1999), and even The Truman Show (1998), while not computer generated, is no less a virtual world and example of Plato’s cave. So where did this love affair come from? Philosophers have questioned the nature of reality for millennia and film has been doing this for years but the trendsetter, the one that set the bar was the German miniseries World on a Wire (1973), out now on Blu-Ray.
After the sudden death of his friend and colleague Professor Henri Vollmer (Mascha Rabben) at the Cybernetics and Future Science’s Institute, Dr Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is promoted to technical director of the Simulacron 1 program. A supercomputer-generated virtual world of 9000 “units” that live as human beings unaware that they are part of a computer generation. While at a party, Stiller is approached by Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the Institute’s head of security, who informs him that Vollmer believed he had discovered a terrible secret and was acting irrationally and that there might have been more to his death. Before Stiller can press Lause any further, the latter disappears without a trace. Literally. Not only can Stiller not find him, no one else can remember him. Working with Vollmer’s daughter Eve (Mascha Rabben) Stiller finds himself trying to solve a mystery no one else seems or is able to accept as reality. As Stiller starts to develop strange habits, he finds himself having to enter the simulation of Simulacron 1 to find the answers he needs.
Wire is old school European Sci-Fi at its best. Having gone through the hellish crucible of World War 2 and with high odds that it will be the front line if the Cold War heated up, it lacks the hopeful air that American Sci-Fi had. It was dreary and oppressive, less given over to large action showpieces and more musings on the world and humanities place in it. That’s not to say American Sci-Fi didn’t experience it, but the majority of it came post-Vietnam and in the meantime director Rainer Werner Fassbinder has skilfully crafted a story light years ahead of its time. What does it mean to be human in a world where technology has blurred the lines between reality and the virtual? Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus have shaped the mise-en-scène of each scene to box in, rather than just frame, the actors by manmade items, be it something as mundane as a car-door or the squares of wire mesh, to the data blocks of a computer. Humanity is trapped by the very machines they have created. Framed by artwork, they are not even surrounded by nature, merely boxed in by a facsimile of it. Even when talking to one another you are more likely to see the actors not speaking directly to each other, rather be reflected in a mirror or highly polished surface so compositionally they’re standing next to each other and across the room at the same time. It’s not so much that the characters are doubled, rather there is the actual character and what Vollmer describes as a social composite of the character made up by how others see them.
There are times throughout when the acting comes across as either wooden or completely unhinged, as though the uncanny valleys asylum has been left unlocked and the patients have gotten out and fled to the German film industry. Normally I would be all over this as an immersion break but it is only as you go through it that it begins to make sense. They are meant to be stilled and lifeless at times, suffering violent mood swings at others.
The special edition comes with 50 pages bound production booklet, an interview with assistant director Renate Leiffer, On-set featurette, an interview with transhumanist philosopher Professor Nick Bostrom and a Making of documentary.
Where later films like The Matrix had gun-fu and eXistenZ had body-horror, Wire has mystery and paranoia. And, as with all good Sci-Fi regardless of the homeland, it examines the human condition, what it means to be human in a world where technology is outstripping our ability to keep up with it, what the implications are for the concept of the reality around us when are machines develop at the speed of thought.
Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Src: Fritz Müller-Scherz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben Ivan Desny, Mascha Rabben
Prd: Peter Märthesheimer, Alexander Wesemann
DOP: Michael Ballhaus
Music: Gottfried Hüngsberg
Runtime: 205 minutes
World on a Wire is available in a Limited Edition Blu-ray Box Set from Second Sight now