My notes on Welt am Draht (World on a Wire)
The 1999 Hollywood science fiction film The Thirteenth Floor – perceived as a spoiler for or a coincidental parallel with The Matrix (which buried it at the box office) was based on Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3 (1964), also published as Counterfeit World. The German-born Rusnak wouldn’t have known of this interesting, obscure science fiction book if it hadn’t been adapted in 1973 for German television as a two-part drama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. What later came to be called virtual realities weren’t uncommon in written sf when Galouye was writing; he might have been inspired by Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (1955), which was adapted as an episode of the British TV series Out of the Unknown (1966) and for Italian TV by Luigi Cozzi as Il Tunnel sotto il Mondo (1969). Given that filmed sf lags decades behind written sf, it’s no surprise that too many are now seeing this as simply a forerunner of The Matrix, whereas actually the Wachowski Siblings were actually coming very, very late to the party. Though Fassbinder’s films are often shot through with the fantastical, this was his only sf effort – and, as signalled by a cameo from Eddie Constantine, he must have been equally inspired by Alphaville. Indeed, he solves the problem of creating a future world on a low budget in the Godard manner by using found locations – co-opting futuristic (ironically, mostly corporate) locations from various cutting-edge or in-construction modern architecture.
With an Alphaville-ish use of retro noir fashions (hats) and mannerisms (femmes fatales, smoky nightclubs), it presents a futuristic vision which not only hasn’t dated since the ‘70s but has very often been elaborated upon in near-future hardboiled thrillers from Blade Runner onwards. Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), a computer programmer, is working on a corporate-government project whereby a simulated world is created inside a computer with self-aware inhabitants and used to project commercial, social or political trends. However, when his boss goes insane and a security man not only disappears but is deleted from everyone else’s memory, Fred begins to suspect that his world is also a simulation, and that some people he knows are projections of unknown and possibly malign programmers in that world – in a neat bit of doppelganging, it turns out that he is himself programmed to seem like the megalomaniac villain who is responsible for all his miseries. Part One is about picking at the threads, with the mind-freak notion that this is a simulation cropping up only at the climax, and Part Two is a paranoid thriller as Fred’s world starts fraying as the programmers’ interventions in the plot become more blatant – a friend who might help is suddenly possessed to drive his car in a river, and a whole streetful of folks suddenly know who he is and accuse him of murder before turning into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-ish pursuing mob.
It presents characters and situations who seem at first to be guyed or parodied – blonde temptresses with feather boas throwing themselves at stiff guys in suits (does this reveal something about the psychological make-up of the programmers?) – but eventually reveals that what we took for failures of the imagination were actually clues. Fassbinder casts members of his entourage (Kurt Raab, Ulli Lommel, Margit Carstensen) and veteran Euro-actors (Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny). In an inevitable climax, clumsily literalised in the remake, Stiller is guided by a sympathetic programmer from the upper level (Mascha Rabben) to be gunned down just as he switches consciousness with his programmer – and they wake in a shuttered moderne office with blinds which open to disclose a world beyond (in an odd detail that probably came with the location, telephones on the windowsills aren’t usable when the room is in lockdown) which we can’t help but think is just another level of simulation. This has been listed in reference books for years but been almost unseeable – even Fassbinder retros tended to overlook it; it’s out on DVD from Second Sight with an invaluable documentary.