He was young when he made it, but he was always young. Having died at 37 from overdoing drugs and work, he completed more films than years of life. And it is dated, but there is fresh delight in the correlation of datedness to its endurance. Not just because it has been unavailable all these years, accumulating mystique, but also for being so clearly ahead of its time to begin with.
It is World on a Wire, the rarely seen 1973 TV movie by New German Cinema mainstay Rainer Werner Fassbinder, newly restored, making the rounds in limited release, and worth catching even if you don't think you have three and a half hours to spare. What makes you so sure it isn't really a matter of time having you to spare?
Here's what you should know. Derived from Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel Simulacron 3, it involves a sinister corporate-controlled virtual-reality situation, with related philosophical questions. In the filmmaker's own words, "Perhaps another, larger world has made us as a virtual one? In this sense it deals with the old philosophical model, which here takes on a certain horror."
It's as you always suspected: The movies had a dystopian Euro-chic cyberworld rabbit hole long before The Matrix, and also a grubby sardonic preemptive rebuke to the moneyed hokum that was Avatar. Here, instead of the glum self-seriousness of Blade Runner, warmed over once again, we have the glum self-seriousness of Fassbinder, cryogenically frozen but still so fresh!
Our hero here, played by Klaus Löwitsch, is a cybernetics engineer working on what he calls "the most exciting research project in the entire world," not wrongly, but not quite comprehendingly either. With dubious help from a small array of blank-faced blondes (Mascha Rabben, svelte; Barbara Valentin, buxom), he finds himself negotiating the variously expressed sudden nonexistence of several colleagues.
World on a Wire is willfully dense, a noirish sci-fi puzzler with a hint of James Bond and occasional soap suds bubbling up from its glassy concourse into the air of grainy fluorescence. Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville also was a model, for taking an available actual world to be plenty ominous and science-fiction-like as it is, and Fassbinder gets much power from the blunt, quaint aesthetic of '70s-style futurism, with its plasticky furniture, its ties and sideburns of formidable width, its groping zooms.
He does well by his own usual style, too. It's all so flatly lit and acted as to seem somehow invitingly morose. Supporting players don't really support so much as lurk and pout. Quite often the whole ensemble seems like some vast, ambitiously arty punk band, having a (deadpan) laugh at the expense of the rest of us market-driven "identity units."
Obviously alienated by the post-fascist "economic miracle" and hostile to West German complacency, Fassbinder took interest in oppression as both a topic and a practice. An imperious yet sensitive soul, he could make Hollywood genre deconstruction seem at once like seething and like picking lint. And so he recognized the potential of a liberatingly perfunctory plot -- which is to say he knew going in to this latent existential classic what the rest of us have since taken many movies to figure out.
World on a Wire opens Friday, July 29, 2011, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit roxie.com.