“There was a party at the Statue of Liberty, but I’d already read publicity of me going to it so I felt it was done already”

-Andy Warhol (1)

“This human race that worship clocks and does not meet time”

-CCCP frontman Giovanni Lindo Ferretti (2)

In June 1968 the science-fiction magazine Galaxy published two lists of sci-fi writers who respectively opposed and supported the US military intervention in Viet-Nam, amongst the supporters was Daniel F. Galouye (3) who had four years earlier published a novel entitled Simulacron III (published in England as The Counterfeit World). Translated into German, Italian and Spanish, Galouye’s book is the literary source of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, 1973), the first of two cinematic adaptations of the aforementioned text. (4) ‘Busybodies’, ‘Pollsters’, ‘Reaction Monitors Code’, ‘Certified Reaction Monitors’, ‘Empathy-Surveillance Circuits’, ‘Contact Units’ and ‘Empathy Couplings’ populated Galouye’s futuristic novel set in the year 2034; Fassbinder captures the pervasive apparatus of control already wiring western society, avoiding any exotic aftertime he dramatises the contemporaneity of techno-totalitarianism. With the exception made for few but significant details (temporary re-contextualisation being the foremost), Fassbinder’s adaptation follows quite closely Galouye’s novel, but insists on the ambiguity of perceived reality whilst the book overtly marks the distinction between the authentic and the unauthentic (without ever visually inscribing this difference in the semantics of the narrative). Nonetheless, the absence of a consistent reality is after all implied in the original title of the book: Simulacron III. Simulation in fact, amongst all the terms that indicate the doubling of an object (representation, imitation, copying, etc.) is the one that conveys the absence of an original; if one simulates something, an emotion, a fact, a process, a situation, it is because this something is not there, it is not present and needs to be faked. Simulacra is, according to Mario Perniola, “the image of something that does not exist”. (5)

Built on the Ballardian paradigm whereby “the furthest future is colonised, with mankind abandoning its biological past and assuming the form of hyper-intelligent computers”, World on a Wire is immanent science-fiction, dystopian hyper-realism, a fantastic voyage in social space caught in “dreams of virtual reality dismantl[ing] our most deeply held beliefs in the difference between the real and the illusory.” (6) In fact and effect, Fassbinder’s sole excursus into science-fiction cinema boasts a profound understanding of the genre’s allegorical potential; the director observes the metamorphosis of the body in the passage from industrial to post-industrial and the inscription onto the nervous system of a cold technological syntax. The tortuous and spasmodic trajectory of a future-industrial thriller is innervated into a coeval narrative, the future has already materialised and the camera finds it endlessly reflected on the chromium surfaces of corporate offices, governmental buildings and their surgical (del)imitations. (7) Michael Ballhaus’ camera soars on the geometries of simulations choreographing an alienated set of aerobatic stillness where characters are surveilled as they abandon their images behind glasses and escape through mirrors. Meta-critically fitting within the tradition of the Fernsehspiel (German films made for television), its engagement with contemporary “realitat” and its “aim to transport us into the interior nature of reality” (8), World on a Wire confutes the positivist idea(l) of a material reality and describes the crisis of consolidated identities uploading their digital selves into the polymorphisms of the visible.

The mise-en-scene, before its poetical content, is aesthetically affected and articulated by the vision of reality that the film advances: the media landscape is not only a fictional interface but has openly and ineluctably established its hegemony within the psychic realm of our lives. Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra (published in 1964 as well) seems to be latently informing Fassbinder’s vision, for in his book the prime minister itself is a simulacra produced by “sim-com: simulacra construction for planetary colonisation.” (9) Mr. Rupp (Ulli Lommel), the journalist, an irrelevant character in the novel, is granted eloquent prominence in the film as if to stress how “the loss of meaning is directly linked to the dissolving, dissuasive action of information, the media, and the mass media.” (10) Published news disappear and then re-appear once again according to a manufactured logic of mystification; Rupp tells his secretary: “stories written by life are never simple” and she replies: “but truth is stranger than fiction…” The absence of a self-authenticating reality is structurally implied in the media sign-scape surcharging us, that is why the next five minutes and inner realms are the only time and space left to be explored. (11) On this note it is interesting to notice the use that Fassbinder makes of electronic sound effects, a typical device of science-fiction cinema. Throughout the film they are deployed (usually accompanied by close-ups) to emphasise the inner reactions of Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) and the psychic lapses caused by the gradual realisation that the split between perceived reality and its idealised essence is being manipulated. Professor Henry Vollmer’s (Adrian Hoven) death/disappearance/ reprogramming takes place after he insubordinately decides to share his convictions about the reality the institute he presides over is (thinking to be) manipulating. When government personnel is called to be briefed on the recent developments of the Institute of Futuristic and Cybernetics, Vollmer tells the state secretary: “you’re nothing more than the image others have made of you”. His behaviour is systematically unacceptable, shortly after he radiates himself, or is he radiated? Whatever the electro-simulated truth, questioning does not seem to be part of the programmed options. He moves into unconscious darkness, Vollmer exits the frame to sit in the obscurity of the cinema amongst the puzzled audience. The ‘sense of reality’ relies upon people’s disposability to be deceived and it is this public availability that constitutes the true fundament of the social contract. Dark are the Ages when the colourful lights of the society of the spectacle are put off. This sequence (as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus remarks in the dvd extras), is characterised by the vast presence of a luscious Ektachrome black against the crystal melange of whites, azures and greys; the same dark that suddenly envelopes Stiller’s car as he is driving with Eva Vollmer (Mascha Elm Rabben). The same dark we find between each frame, hidden yet operating, emphasises the illusive character of the filmic image in its continuous deceiving. Like in Alexander Kluge’s Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Emotions, 1985), the presence of a non-perceived darkness next to chromatic images ignites an enigmatic dynamic that Fassbinder’s film subtly explores.

What is most striking in World on a Wire is the non-distinction between the reality produced by computer Simulacron and the ‘real’ reality, it is precisely this hyper-realistic indifference born from a depthless world that characterises it. The science of fiction stems almost out of inertia from the hyper-functional and operational world whose strings are pulled by its own falsity, by its authentic-less projec(tion). (12)

Curiously enough, the critic Thomas Elsaesser, referring to Fassbinder’s stylistic approach to realism (with no specific reference to World on a Wire) claims:

“[Fassbinder] has discovered for the German cinema the importance of being artificial in order to appear realistic […] the effects are calculated to support and amplify the characters and their emotions […] the realistic locations have something strangely symbolic. Against an atmosphere of ‘naturalised’ artifice, Fassbinder’s Germany is more historically present in many a political documentary.” (13)

As it is in the case of his depiction of social dynamics and the inescapable coercions they determine, the vicious circularity of a machine that simulates reality and a reality that simulates its authenticity seems to be a fitting theme within Fassbinder’s world. He, who had narrated the vicious dominion of power and its incarnation into sick feelings and the mutation of love into exchange value, perfectly captures the desocialisation of virtual societies and their paranoiac implosion of interpersonal relations.

The oppressive social force that would turn victims into oppressors is the same implosive absorption of reality unto simulation; in fact the virtual world of Simulacron bears no difference from the real one. We no longer have an imaginative stance measured against ‘the real’ (as traditional science-fiction often has), Simulacron produces reality – so much so that Fred Stiller (Doug Hall in the novel) feels “squeezed between the calculating malevolence of two worlds” (14) – precluding any outer space for fictional anticipation. The hypothetical axiom of Fassbinder on the captivity of the individual finds a suitable figurative place within the alphabet of science-fiction cinema.

Unlike in the conspiratorial thesis of The Matrix (1999) – which implies the catechising dichotomy Machine (bad) vs. Zion + Neo (good) and a marked figurative difference between the matrix and reality – the theme of control and simulation is in World on a Wire strategically depersonalised, virtual reality is a herd-like movement of the whole of society into a realm of self-imposed docility and sensory deprivation. The illiberal control of our lives seems to be inherent to an illusory democracy as opposed to the malevolent will of the wicked Mensch-Maschine imposed upon a victimised majority that only superman of Zion can rescue…

Unlike ‘space operas’ and their dreams of conquest (Star Wars (1977) being the perfect example), World on a Wire configures an ‘operational space’ where the technological reality of our surroundings is rescued from its perceived abstraction. Simulation looses in Fassbinder’s film its negative charge, its traditional reference to the ‘unauthentic’ and is considered as a mechanism of society, as a process whereby reality is produced in the electronic shadow of an eclipsed analogic referent.

“The balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of any kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising. The increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-emptying of any free or original imaginative response by the television screen. Modern communications has usurped and hijacked everyday reality, imposing its own myths and fictions on us all.” (15)

Unifunctional and immovable, modern architecture with its assigned spaces to distinct faculties provides the perfect set within which the relational intercourse between various characters looses its tactical origin(ality) via countless reverberations. Reality, in the traditional sense of a self-legitimating realm, has been evicted. With the exception made for the outdoor sequences, throughout the film all the characters are forced to appear in short circuit with their own glinted image, the collapsing dualism between original and simulation, reality and fiction is already inscribed in a manufactured environment. The initial sequence of the swimming pool party impeccably freezes the staged algidity of society; persons pose like mannequins and dematerialise without a trace like showroom dummies from a shop window after the sales. The stringent feeling of anxiety is mainly conveyed by the circularity between the real and the illusory, wherein the latter enjoys the same corporeality of the first, thus resulting as indistinguishable. (16) Our hero, Fred Stiller, experiences what Darko Suvin (17) calls “cognitive distancing” from the given context not as an oppositional need (as it was in George Orwell’s 1984) but as a sort of implicit confrontation between the narrated society and the frustrated possibilities of reality. Implicit for it is not the case of a character taking a stance, but rather being taken aback with bathos as the narrative itself takes its course, thus disclosing the existential entrapment. The character never questions the moral legitimacy of what is gradually discovered, his ethical performance is judged in terms of corporate success and not human dignity, so he rejoices when joining the ‘world’ from which he was projected. Practically and finally, Fred Stiller ends up in world where Simulacron III (or its technical equivalent) is fully operational and he is selfsame of ‘The Operator Up There’ as it is called in the novel, “a material person drawing warped gratification out of watching imaginary entities go through simulated anguish.”(18) (In the book during an ultimate and improbable sabotaged empathy-coupling the protagonist replaces the wicked ‘Operator’ as the only way to be with Eva Vollmer). When finally ‘escaping’ the simulated world, the protagonist finds himself in exactly the same surroundings, love is vacuumed into an empty room and the automatic shutters disclose another image of a familiar reality. Fred Stiller has moved into further simulation, the police simultaneously kills and dispenses him with a ‘new’ automatic function; his movement between these two worlds is as much an illusion as it is in Zeno’s paradox. No medium better suits such description than cinema itself whose iconographic morphology, as G. Fihman illustrated, technically realises Zeno’s paradox. (19) Movement is an illusion within the film on a narrative and mechanical level; the illusion of movement is achieved via the succession of stills and Stiller himself remains psycho-physically still. As his surname suggests: even more still! Even the plot developments end up being simulated, we do not get a canonical resolution that re-establishes the place of reality, the ostensible unfolding of the story does not lead authentically anywhere…circular ambiguity is where the story short-circuits. The filmic image itself is the outcome of a mise-en-scene, of an artificial set that is structurally occulted during the screening, so much so that we think of cinema as a reproductive configuration rather than a productive process.

Like the outlawed inorganic scientist of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who utilises science to create a double of Maria (Brigitte Helm), so cinema and increasingly so society itself, thanks to technology, produces a factitious image of an imposed reality substituting the phenomenologically visible and altering thus the horizon of perception. Our World is on a Wire, and what the film does, today more than ever before, is to reverberate it through tantamount screens for us to ponder, reconsider the space of (inner) reality and the role of mendacity. In times where even our moral stances are based on mendacity, where our ethical positions are framed by the corruption of meaning, any meaningful act cannot escape the radical reconsideration of what is sold to us as reality. It is interesting to note how the admonitory challenges that certain science fiction has launched in the past century are now being incorporated in more canonical forms of cultural production. So while the average teenage dream is to take part in a ‘reality show’ (never was an appellation more explicit), counteractive forces undermine the very nature of a reality that is constantly being fictionalised, depraved of autonomous reaction, integrally controlled. The UK dubstep producers Kode 9 & The Spaceape, in their debut LP Memories of the Future, perfectly captured the exigency of an ir/realisation that “through science we find alliance to endure reality creating blinding lights of fiction as our only clarity, marked by the memories of a future past, is the beginning not the end that we have to reach last”. To acknowledge the illusory basis of our most profound convictions is to rescue the human experience from the violent falsity of ‘truth’, is to reclaim the pleasurable unknowns of a non-programmed existence.

“If the state increasingly needs terrorism as its double, it is because a stellar distance between the social substance and its representation, the practice of everyday life and the mechanisms of dominion is introduced.” (20)

Although tinsel has long taken the place of substance, the pantomime of society sails on like a warmongering starship longing for new adventures whilst the genocide of meaning consumes itself in front of deferent audiences.

Endnotes

  1. I Diari di Andy Wharol, a cura di Hackett Pat, De Agostini, 1989, p.49.
  2. “Svegliami (Perizia Psichiatrica Nazionalpopolare)”, in Canzoni preghiere danze del II millennio – Sezione Europa, Virgin Records, 1989.
  3. See Michael Moorcock, “Starship Stormtroopers”, in The Opium General and Other Stories, Harrap, 1984; reprinted from Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, 1978. Also see, “Fantascienza e Viet-Nam”, in Un’Ambigua Utopia (Rivista di Critica Marx/z/iana), No. 2, Aprile 1978, p. 19.
  4. Two months after The Matrix was released, The Thirteenth Floor (Josef Rusnak, 1999) came out, obviously receiving no attention whatsoever. The film though is an insipid albeit faithful adaptation of Galouye’s book where the time coordinates change but not the book’s final reconciliation.
  5. Mario Perniola, La Societá dei Simulacri, Cappelli, Bologna, 1980, p. 122. See also Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange Symbolique et la Mort, Gallimard, Paris, 1976.
  6. JG Ballard, “Back to the Heady Future”, The Daily Telegraph, 1993; reprinted in, A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews, Flamingo, 1997, pp. 192-194.
  7. Electron affinities with Godard’s Alphaville short-circuit here – or, if we consider cinema as bourgeois quiz show, with the cameo of Eddie Constantine – for the reactionary romanticism of the Swiss director finds no space in Welt am Draht.
  8. Jane Shattuc, Television Tabloids and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture, University of Minnesota, 1995, p. 39.
  9. Philip K. Dick, The Simulacra, Gollancz, 2004, p. 37.
  10. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 1994, p. 79.
  11. JG Ballard, Which Way to Inner Space?, New Worlds, 1962.
  12. Jean Baudrillard, lecture held in Palermo, October 1978, at the convention “La Fantascienza e la Critica”, in Un’Ambigua Utopia (Rivista di Critica Marx/z/iana), Anno IV N. 1 (7) – 1 Trimestre, 1980, p. 26.
  13. Thomas Elsaesser in (edited by) Tony Rayns, Fassbinder, BFI, 1976, p. 33.
  14. Daniel F. Galouye, The Counterfeit World, London, Victor Gollancz LTD, 1964, p. 93.
  15. JG Ballard, Spin, 1989.
  16. Directly or indirectly the film owes here to the Resnais of Last Year in Marienbad and Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, where themes of time, space (especially in the former) and inner reality constitute the poetical pillars upon which the films rest.
  17. Darko Suvin, Pour une poétique de la science-fiction, Montréal, 1977, 1.ére partie, chap. 1.er.
  18. Daniel F. Galouye, The Counterfeit World, London, Victor Gollancz LTD, 1964, p. 140.
  19. G. Fihman, “Le Cinéma date du jour oú”, in AA.VV. Du cinema selon Vincennes, Université Paris 8, Paris, 1979.
  20. Antonio Caronia, “Qualche riflessione (dopo un lungo silenzio)”, in Un’Ambigua Utopia (Rivista di Critica Marx/z/iana), Anno IV N. 1 (7) – 1 Trimestre 1980, p. 2.