World on a Wire

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World on a Wire

Wire World is one of the most evocative, multi-layered, and influential science fiction films you’ve probably never heard of.

Professor Vollmer works at the Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology as director of the “Simulacron” program: a computer-created artificial world whose inhabitants, called “identity units“, live like humans, but are unaware that their reality is only an advanced simulation. Vollmer discovers something unusual and soon dies in a freak accident. The professor is succeeded by Dr. Fred Stiller, who continues his research on simulation and at the same time tries to solve the mystery of Vollmer’s discovery. Stiller notes that some identity units in the simulation become aware of the artificiality of the world around them and even try to commit suicide; others want to get into the “real” world (whatever that is). But even there, amazing things start to happen the head of the Institute’s security disappears without a trace and no one remembers him, the press headlines change depending on the memories, and Stiller’s memory is increasingly failing him. Eventually, one of the identity units informs him that he himself is living in a simulation. But how can you tell a phantom from an original if the differences are almost impossible to detect?

World on a Wire is an adaptation of the 1964 novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye. Fassbinder shot the film over six weeks for German television ARD as a two-part miniseries totaling over 200 minutes.

It is an old-fashioned and at the same time incredibly modern work. Old-fashioned because, as a low-budget television production, it does not boast special effects or fast-paced action, but is based on tasteful set design and dialogues steeped in philosophy. Modern (or rather timeless), because the topic of virtual reality is still widely reflected in popular culture. Of course, the very concept of the world as an illusion is much older – the Vedic religion already had the term “maya“, meaning a veil concealing the true nature of the world and human identity; What also comes to mind is the Taoist master Zhuangzi and his parable about the sage who dreamed that he was a butterfly, and when he woke up, he asked himself the question: is he a man dreaming of a butterfly, or perhaps a butterfly dreaming of a man? There are many examples: Hilary Putnam‘s thought experiment about the brain in a container, Descartes and his theory about the malicious demon, Zeno of Elea’s paradoxes about motion as an illusion… The last two ideas were explicitly mentioned in World on a Wire.

Virtual reality as a simulation indistinguishable from “real” reality is a particularly attractive motif for authors of science fiction literature. We are talking not only about Daniel Galouye, whose novel served as the basis for Fassbinder’s film, but also about Stanisław Lem and, above all, Philip K. Dick, who made the opposition reality – simulation, authentic – artificial, truth falsehood, human – android the main themes of his work. “From the very beginning we are in the area of ​​total simulation, devoid of source and beginning, immanent, without past and future, in a space of free flow. […] The double has disappeared, the copy does not exist, we are always in another world that is no longer different, in a world without a mirror, without the possibility of projection and utopia that could be its reflection – the simulation is insurmountable, impassable, dull, without an outside – we can no longer even go to the other side of the mirror, as in the golden age of transcendence” [1] – wrote the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard about Dick, and the same can be written about the plot of World on a Wire.

Particularly interesting in this context is the symbolism of mirrors mentioned by Baudrillard – presented very often in Fassbinder’s telefilm. The elegant interiors of the Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology are full of shiny surfaces: monitors, mirrors, leather sofas, tables with glass tops, decorative panels, transparent partitions and mirrored pedestals with replicas of Greek statues. The faces of the characters populating this world regularly appear in frames as mirror images, emphasizing the main theme of the film: the world as doubling and inversion and people as doppelgangers and clones.

The philosophical (ontological, epistemological, etc.) consequences of simulation are not the only topic of Fassbinder’s multi-level film. The “Simulacron” generated by computing machines at the Institute of Cybernetics and Futurology has a specific purpose: predicting future economic, political and social events with an accuracy that will allow determining the directions in which humanity will be heading. In other words: its use consists in creating a model of the world identical to the real one in such a way that conclusions can be drawn based on events in the simulation, which can then be applied in the real world. Those who have the knowledge acquired in this way will have an advantage over those who are deprived of this type of valuable information. This is not only about improving living conditions in the future, but about domination over competitors. In World on a Wire, it concerns the metal market, but it is not difficult to imagine using the virtual world for more nefarious purposes. At this point, Fassbinder’s film becomes something of a social critique.

It doesn’t end there: World on a Wire can also be treated as a metaphor for the act of creation, in this case a film, and therefore as a kind of meta-reflection on the very essence of cinema. What is a film if not a more or less skillful imitation of the world, an artificial product imitating reality in which viewers immerse themselves? It is not without reason that in one of the film’s scenes, Stiller compares identity units – digital avatars created in the image and likeness of people – to characters on television who dance to the delight of the audience. In another sequence, his superior Siskins watches his simulation doppelgänger on a monitor screen as he participates in a musical variety show. “The world is a theater, actors are people / Who enter and disappear one by one. / Every actor there plays more than one role, / Because seven centuries make up the drama of life” – wrote Shakespeare at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Who is the director and who is the actor in the theater entitled world on a wire ? The answer is not clear, and this is also the strength of this difficult but ambitious film, which will be a feast for viewers longing for quality science fiction.

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