To see Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 reality-bender World on a Wire seems only half the battle. Such an exquisitely invigorating aesthetic experience from frame one, the temptation for formalists is to simply let it all wash over you, Marienbad-style, without a second thought for whatever content you may be missing out on. The camera lingers and rotates, zooms and pans, constantly keeping its subjects in carefully-blocked arrangements so that they may be better captured by the many mirrors that surrounds them. The music, at once dissonant and melodic, both undermines and enhances the drama onscreen, and the characters all behave like they just checked out of the Overlook Hotel. But one should mind their words, for when the film collapses in on itself at the act break (filmed for television, World on a Wire is presented here in two parts), it suddenly becomes a very, very different experience.
To say much more would spoil the fun, but to say it’s The Matrix with the aesthetics of Kubrick or Resnais and the emotion of Orwell or Huxley would not be terribly unfair to the new viewer, with proper leeway accorded to the viewer less familiar with these titans. It’s also joyously televisual, which is to say that Fassbinder knew the medium for which he filmed. It follows its plot most aggressively, letting the viewer parse its philosopher for him- or herself. I couldn’t find sufficient information on whether or not it would have aired with commercial breaks, but there are certainly enough cliffhangers for that to be the case; the one at the act break is as thrilling and enticing as a season finale of Lost. Suffice to say this is invigorating science fiction that also functions very satisfyingly as straightforward entertainment.
It is now, thanks to The Criterion Collection, also something you can now experience as it was intended – on your television! And on two separate nights if you so choose (and the total running time, three hours and thirty-two minutes, makes that a very attractive offer). The real benefit, however, is that it is something you can return to, again and again, to parse out unclear plot advances or to just dwell in the sheer strangeness of the first half, in addition to the obvious benefits of owning a truly great film.
Criterion’s high-definition transfer to Blu-ray is quite pleasing. Fassbinder and Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus really made the most out of 16mm, exploiting its natural tendency to let colors bleed, and letting the whites boom bright. Blu-ray is a perfect format for these kind of bold choices in contrast that get washed out in even the best of film prints, so I was in hog heaven with this. 16mm stock also lends a natural softness that Criterion should not be blamed – rather, commended – for transferring faithfully while still maintaining due sharpness when available. It’s a hell of a show, especially considering how much they packed onto one disc.
There is some frame-specific damage and hairs left in. In one of the special features, which spends part of its time observing the restoration of World on a Wire, we see Ballhous claiming no one would notice this, but then he doesn’t know us home theater geeks now does he. Nonetheless, it’s contained to a few seconds and not terribly obtrusive.
Fassbinder’s sound design is quite ambitious, especially for television, with the music composed to be as bombastic as a film from the golden age of Hollywood, but given much less priority than the dialogue. The effect is quite invigorating, and Criterion has done a nice job of balancing the two, keeping everything crisp, clear, and robust.
The special features are at once limited and expansive. All we get are a documentary and an interview, but they run fifty minutes and thirty, respectively, and they pack a ton of information into those runtimes. The documentary, made in 2010 as the film was being restored, features interviews with Ballhous, co-screenwriter Fritz Müller-Scherz, actor Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, and many others who have just come to love the film. They focus mostly on the production side of things, featuring a lot of anecdotes about Fassbinder (who died in 1982 at the age of 37, having already made 40 feature-length films and many, many other projects). Documentarian Juliane Lorenz also explores how several elements of social commentary within the film have actually come to light, and how modern technology is not too different from the world Fassbinder depicted.
The other supplement is an interview with film scholar Gerd Gemünden, who, as one might expect from a film scholar, focuses on the aesthetics and interpretations within the film, and how it fits alongside Fassbinder’s other work. This is, of course, delightful and insightful.
And it wouldn’t be a Criterion release without an accompanying booklet. This is rather on the small side, featuring an essay by critic Ed Halter, focusing on the way Fassbinder uses mirrors and monitors to question reality. Honestly, any essay that didn’t at least mention this aspect of the film would do the film a massive disservice, but it’s nevertheless a good read.
Outward appearances make it seem like this is a rather slim package that Criterion has assembled, but then, appearances can be deceiving. The sheer quantity of entertainment you’re getting aside, World on a Wire is also an extraordinarily dense piece of filmmaking, particularly in its first half, and is well worth having on your shelf to return to time and time again. The special features may not be numerous, but they contain far more insight than most “jam-packed” “special edition” studio releases. Highly recommended.