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54th San Francisco International Film Festival at BAM/PFA

Saturday, April 30, 2011
2:00 p.m. World on a Wire
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany, 1973)

(Welt am draht). Largely unseen since its 1973 broadcast in Germany, the restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cyberpunk precursor is a revelation. This immensely satisfying and entirely singular work has rarely screened in the United States. Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3, the film’s treatment of virtual worlds brings to mind The Matrix or Tron, but with its own astounding visual style. Director of photography Michael Ballhaus, who also supervised the restoration, mounts a riot of reflected, refracted, and severely fragmented images in the service of a prescient story concerned with the illusory nature of reality and the subjectivity of perception. Scientist Fred Stiller replaces a colleague who was in charge of an enormous computer simulation until he committed suicide. The simulation is an artificially constructed world, made up of “identity units” with human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, created in order to predict the real-world needs of the future. Stiller’s paranoia grows as he tries to uncover the reason behind his coworker’s death. At the same time, he is unnerved by the sudden disappearance of a man who everyone but him seems to have immediately forgotten. World on a Wire is on par with the best of European science fiction, but Fassbinder, rather than playing the genre straight, makes it his own. Subverting the material with characteristic elements of camp, pastiche, and Sirkian melodrama, Fassbinder lends the film his distinctive sensibility, and it is all the richer for it. One of the major cinematic rediscoveries of the past year, World on a Wire is a beguilingly eccentric fusion of styles, as well as a breathtaking visual achievement.

—Jesse Dubus

• Written by Fassbinder, Fritz Müller-Scherz. Photographed by Michael Ballhaus. With Klaus Löwitch, Ulli Lommel, Barbara Valentin, Günter Lamprecht. (204 mins)