IMAGINE the movie The Matrix without visual effects, guns, or "bullet time."
Now imagine it on German television in 1973.
What you now have is World on a Wire, a two-part movie miniseries from no less than the prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. With its themes of artificial reality and artificial humanity, the movie not only anticipates The Matrix but Blade Runner, too.
Computer scientist Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) becomes suspicious upon the mysterious death of his project chief, Vollmer, a man who suffered headaches and possibly delusions before being electrocuted in the computer room.
Stiller is put in charge of Simulacron, an artificial world populated by 8,000 "identity units" who go about their lives unaware that they are, in fact, computer programs.
Stiller's own suspicions are aroused when he investigates with the help of a security chief, Gunther Lause, who abruptly goes missing. Suddenly, no one is aware Lause existed.
Stiller's pursuit of the truth leads him to the brink of insanity, despite the intervention of Vollmer's curiously remote daughter Eva (Mascha Rabben) and his sexy new secretary (Barbara Valentin, a Fassbinder favourite once referred to as the "Jayne Mansfield of Germany").
This movie was based on a novel that inspired a similarly obscure 1999 Hollywood film titled The Thirteenth Floor, which was quickly overshadowed by The Matrix, released the same year.
Despite Fassbinder's name, World on a Wire may be the most obscure of all. Part of this has to do with the film being unnecessarily slow going. (Cinematheque is scheduling a 15 minute intermission between the two episodes, which means you're committed to a nearly four-hour experience.) Part of it has to do with its look, which despite the imaginative work by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas), is pretty ugly. Forget The Matrix's highly elaborate production design. The look of this film could be described as '70s futuristic, which translates as lots of plastic surfaces and heinous colour schemes.
Fassbinder was influenced by melodramatists such as Douglas Sirk in many of his other films, but in this one, his primary influence was Jean-Luc Godard, and especially Godard's Alphaville, another film about a computer-controlled future world. That is one reason for the cameo appearance of Eddie Constantine, Alphaville's gumshoe Lemmy Caution.
Those qualities may appeal to film history buffs and sci-fi completists. For Fassbinder fans, there are a few auteur touches, including a Marlene Dietrich impersonator singing Lili Marlene and a surfeit of semi-clad muscular black men.
When making a movie about an artificial universe, it should not be surprising that a filmmaker will indulge his own notions of what the world should look like. Yet one must conclude Fassbinder held back.
If the notorious filmmaker had indulged his sensibilities as much as the Wachowski brothers did for The Matrix, this film might have become a classic instead of a sci-fi footnote.