This was commissioned for a project that seems to have vanished, but I needed to write a couple of sentences for a chapter on the topic… I thought this text would be on my harddrive, but it’s hiding if it is. Fortunately I rarely delete emails.
Welt am Draht (World on a Wire/World on Wires) (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 1973)
Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye, Counterfeit World/Simulacron-3 (1964)
(Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Sc. Fritz Müller-Scherz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Pr. Peter Märthesheimer and Alexander Wesemann; Cin. Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz; P.D. Horst Giese, Walter Koch and Kurt Raab; starring Klaus Löwitsch (Fred Stiller), Barbara Valentin (Gloria Fromm), Mascha Rabben (Eva Vollmer), Karl Heinz Vosgerau (Herbert Siskins), Wolfgang Schenck (Franz Hahn), Kurt Raab (Mark Holm))
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was part of the New German Cinema that emerged in the 1960s, which rejected what it saw as a stagnant film industry and called for more personal, artistic statements, in the manner of Italian Neorealism and the French and British New Waves. Distancing themselves from the existing film studios, film makers often had to turn to television for funding, and premiered work on the small screen – although a cinema release was not unknown, nor being bought up by the arthouse circuits of Europe and the United States. Some of the directors, notably Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff, were able to then seek international and, indeed, Hollywood projects, albeit with less artistic freedom.
During his brief, but prolific, career, Fassbinder worked in theatre (directing twenty-four plays), films (directing forty feature films), radio and television, before his untimely death from a cocktail of drugs at the age of 37. Some of his work pushed back the taboos of what was representable on screen, but his life was sometimes as controversial as his work, and he cast his lovers, both male and female, in his work. For example, El Hedi ben Salem, his Moroccan lover between 1971 and 1974, appears in Welt as a gay bodyguard assigned to keep an eye on Stiller. In addition, Fassbinder had previously worked with Ballhaus, Löwitsch, Märthesheimer, Müller-Scherz, Raab, Schenck and Vosgerau, and many of those he had not collaborated with before, were make more films with him. Rather as in the communities involved in the French and British New Waves, friends shifted roles to act, design, edit, produce and so on, according to the nature of the specific projects.
Although Fassbinder did not follow Galouye’s science-fictional world building, with its echoes of novels by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester and Robert Sheckley – in this case a world economy largely based upon canvassing and opinion polls – this television adaptation was rather closer to the original narrative than The Thirteenth Floor (Josef Rusnak, 1999) was to be. Fred Stiller (the novel’s Doug Hall) is working for the Siskins Establishment, who have managed to create a virtual world within a computer. His superior, Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven, Fuller in the novel), dies in an accident, but Stiller is told by the head of security, Guenther Lauss (Ivan Desny, Lynch in the book), that Vollmer thought that there was something odd going on. However, Lynch then disappears, and the next day no one but Stiller seems to have heard of him. Someone else is in charge of security – and, worse, Stiller is suspected of having murdered Vollmer. Vollmer’s daughter, Eva (Jinx) – previously unknown – appears, and Stiller’s secretary disappears. Increasingly discomfited by events, Stiller discovers that one of the inhabitants of the simulated world has discovered the truth, and indeed manages to travel between his world and Stiller’s; he claims that he is only partly out, and that Stiller’s world is also a simulation. Stiller takes some time to believe thus revelation, and even longer to convince other people. He is on the run, ostensibly as a murder suspect, but more clearly because whoever has programmed his world does not want him to tell other people. But increasingly he starts to despair, and he is suspended from his job. After several narrow escapes from attempts to arrest, confine or silence him, he is killed (in the film in a hail of bullets), and wakes up in the real world. The real Stiller (or Hall in the novel) had become power crazed with manipulating the simulation, and Eve, who loves this simulated Stiller, has managed to get the simulated consciousness into the real body.
Whilst the novel and the dramatisation differ in small details, especially the names of characters, the trajectory of Galouye’s story is followed. The relation between Hall/Stiller and Jinx/Eva is a little played down, although eventually it is significant for the plot. This is a little odd, and despite – rather than because of – the director’s homosexuality; on the other hand, a number of the main characters, especially Stiller, do wander around in skimpy underwear in a faintly homoerotic manner.
Perhaps for budgetary reasons, perhaps because he feared he could not do make an audience believe in the reality of Stiller’s world, most of the narrative takes place in what must be assumed to be a next five minutes future – in other words, a little later than the audience watching it, to allow for beefed up computer technology and telephones with a television screen. The use of modernist, often Brutalist, office buildings and tenements, and a palette tending to the grey, murky brown and off-white, with a wintery tone, produces a drab, depressing backdrop, suggestive of a totalitarian regime of architecture. The model, to some extent, is Alphaville, ou une adventure étrange de Lemmy Caution (Jean-Luc Goddard, 1965), without the extreme camera angles (although Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz’s camera work is very much foregrounded, and the camera sometimes circles the characters) and night shoots, and it offers echoes with A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick 1971). The net result is that it is relatively easy for the audience to believe that this is the real world, and thus to be shocked by the revelation of the truth. It is a less aestheticised version of the post-industrial landscape which Wenders filmed in his road movie trilogy Alice in den Städte (1974), Falsche Bewegung (1975) and, especially, Im Lauf der Zeit (1976). Had the future been too fantastical, it would have felt less of a conceptual breakthrough to an authentic reality from a simulation – it would have been clear to the audience that the diegesis is fictional, and he would have had to have striven to mislead them.
What Einstein, the character who first travels between the nested virtual realities, makes clear, is that there is an up and a down, and a series of realities. The simulation of which Stiller is part has obviously developed its own virtual reality, and there is no reason why that simulation might not start its own computer-generated realm in turn. Similarly it has to be a matter of trust that Stiller ends up at the top of the stream. The programme depicts little of this diegesis – all we really see of the supposed real world is a single room with drapes and blinds over the window. However, Thomas Elsaesser notes that in the treatment for In einum Jahr mit 13 Monden (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), Elvira reads a novel called Welt am Draht, “based on an idea which strikes her as eminently sensibly and profoundly true, namely that the world she lives in is nothing but an experimental model for another, possibly ‘higher’ world, which has set up hers, mainly in order to try out and test, using real human beings, certain situations and responses” (Elsaesser 1996: 203). This suggests the quasi-ontology of Welt continues beyond its diegesis. In “his” “authentic” environment, Stiller becomes much more of a tactile person – perhaps up to that point he had not had the same number of senses, or he has become more receptive to stimuli. The room has a different colour scheme to the rest of the programme – more use of black, and no obvious mirrors.
Mirrors had appeared in virtual every interior scene, and some rooms were more or less lined with mirrors. Characters are shot via their reflections, or the camera pans from them to their reflections; alternatively the mirrors are used to bring two characters facing each other into a two shot, simultaneously facing in opposite and yet the same direction. In an age of Big Brother and reality television, this might suggest surveillance to a twenty-first century audience – although there is no sense that cameras are in fact behind any of the mirrors, and that upstream observation of the simulation seems to be more immersive rather than visual. But in a technological development of the panopticon-style prison, even if the characters knew there were those who could observe them, they would not necessarily know that they were being. Equally mirrors have been used in fantasy – especially Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872) – as portals into alternate realities. Whilst the mirrors work to break up and distort subjective space, Elsaesser suggests that the combination of camera angles and mirrors “disorientates us in time” (Elsaesser 1996: 62). Elsaesser records that mirrors are also significant in other Fassbinder films, such as Chinesiches Roulette (1976), Despair: Eine Reise ins Licht (1978), In einum Jahr mit 13 Monden and Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (1971). They often operate like a maze, trapping both characters and observers, and confusing rather than confirming identity.
In the second episode of Welt, Stiller invokes the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Whilst he does not quite discuss the allegory of the cave – from Plato’s The Republic – he comes close to it. Using the notion of chained humans watching shadows cast on the cave wall and taking this to be reality, Plato argues that humans only perceive copies, and do not have direct access to the World of Forms or the World of Ideals. Representational art is thus a copy of a copy, and potentially misleading. Stiller seems to regard himself as living in a copy of a copy.
Many of the colleagues Stiller talks to perceive him as having gone mad – which, of course, they may have been programmed to think – but the company psychologist instead becomes depressed, unable to see the point of living a knowingly falsified existence. He commits suicide rather than continue – although, again, this may be a programmed reaction in order to eliminate someone who has come across the truth of his situation – it seems likely that people who know that they are being observed will adjust their behaviour, which invalidates the point of the simulation. Stiller’s own despair is slow in coming – he seems more determined to get at the truth than feel the consequences of his discovery. Again it would be difficult to be clear the degree of agency he has at this part of the simulation.
Welt am Draht has not aged particularly well. It is nearly twice the length of The Truman Show (Peter Weir 1998) and does not have the action and explosions of The Matrix (the Wachowski brothers 1999). The raft of virtual reality movies in the late 1990s, as well as the rise of the subgenre of cyberpunk, makes the narrative thrust of the programme seem a little old-fashioned and pedestrian. In addition, Fassbinder draws upon his theatrical experience and uses Brechtian alienation techniques, which limit identification with the characters – indeed, Elsaesser refers to the programme “possessing the character of a parable or a Brechtian ‘model play’ [Lehrstücke]” (Elsaesser 1996: 39, my interpolation). In the long party scene at the start of the programme, where Stiller talks to Siskins, half the party seems to be listening to their conversation; they also appear to be talking to a woman, rather than to each other. In an important meeting in Stiller’s office, Stiller inexplicably does a walking tour of his room, moving through an interior room, whilst talking to the others. In another scene, two characters rotate in their office chairs whilst having a conversation. In retrospect it might be explainable as a defect of the programming to have such randomly behaving characters – and likely it is an attempt to make what feel naturalistically theatrical seem more interesting – but it is disconcerting. The first episode feels painfully slow, by contemporary standards, at nearly ninety minutes, and is mostly interiors of rooms and corridors aside from a few establishing shots of locations. The second episode picks up the pace, with Stiller being pursued, but it still demands a lot of a viewer’s patience. Finally the use of synthesiser music is overly intrusive and discordant, as is typical of much television drama of the early 1970s, including Doctor Who. The ideas at work here are excellent, but despite its television pedigree, Welt perhaps needs to be judged as art cinema, but watched on the small screen.
Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (New York: Bantam, 1964)
Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History Identity Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996)
Julia Knight, New German Cinema: Images of a Generation (London: Wallflower, 2004)