Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, a TV mini-series shot during a break on Fassbinder’s biggest and most prestigious project to date, Effie Briest, and broadcast on German television in 1973, begins as a corporate conspiracy thriller by way of a psychodrama, a stylized piece of pulp fiction in a near-future world. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a computer engineer working on the prize project of the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology (IKZ), is suddenly put in charge when his boss and mentor (Adrian Hoven) dies in a freak accident, right after confessing to Fred that he has come into information too fantastic to believe. It’s alarming enough that a scientific genius electrocutes himself on his own equipment in an act that is appears to be either suicide or assassination, but when Lause (Ivan Desny), Fred’s confidante and the company’s head of security, disappears without a trace days later, Fred’s world is all but turned inside out. And “without a trace” is an understatement: it’s as if he’s been erased (or, dare I say it, deleted?) from the records and memories of the entire company.
That’s when this corporate conspiracy thriller — complete with a CEO shadowed by silent bodyguards dressed like movie gangsters, a buxom secretary (Barbara Valentin) personally sent by the front office to “help out” the hero, and the gorgeous daughter (Mascha Rabben) of the dead inventor who slips into Fred’s life and takes on femme fatale dimensions — tips into something more cerebral.
World on a Wire is (to the best of knowledge) the first feature to take on the concept of virtual reality, an idea rare enough in science fiction literature in 1973. Scripted by Fritz Müller-Scherz and Fassbinder, from a novel by Daniel F. Galouye called “Simulacron-3” (which later became the basis for the 1999 American film The Thirteenth Floor), it traffics in the same paranoid anxieties and questions of identity and reality and perception that Philip K. Dick was exploring in his work since the 1950s (albeit with hardboiled attitude and Fassbinder’s satirical perspective). It anticipates films as diverse as Videodrome, Tron and The Matrix, to name just a few, only Fassbinder does it without special effects or cyber imagery. You might say that he does it all with mirrors.