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World On A Wire: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // February 21, 2012
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted February 21, 2012 | E-mail the Author

Klaus Löwitsch as Fred Stiller - Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

All technology becomes obsolete, but most people prefer to dream about what new gadgets and gizmos are right around the corner. Usually, we overestimate ourselves: most people assumed the 2000s would instantly produce flying cars and moving sidewalks, but we had to settle for the Segway instead. On the other hand, computers are still advancing at breakneck speed, especially since most folks over the age of 30 never thought they'd fit their music libraries, games, movies and family photos all on the same hard drive. Case in point: it's amusing to think of an "advanced" computer system from my youth (the Apple II, for example), which included such luxuries as 15-color graphics and 4kb of RAM for just under $1,300. Who would have guessed today's average cell phone would run circles around it?

Science fiction loves to predict the future of technology...and occasionally, it hits a bullseye. Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel Simulacron-3 presented the the possibility of a virtual world where the inhabitants had no idea they were part of a simulation. The lead scientist behind this virtual world dies under questionable circumstances and another employee vanishes, leading one eyewitness through a spiraling mystery that makes him question the "reality" of the world around him. Less than 10 years later, prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted Galouye's novel into World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973), originally a two-part television feature that added plenty of its own touches. Our man of action is Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), who witnesses the aforementioned disappearance of a co-worker and quickly becomes lost in a complex, layered hall of mirrors (literally and figuratively). As he inches ever closer to the truth, however, large chunks of World on a Wire begin to show their seams.

If I could sum up World on a Wire's visual design in one phrase, it would be "painfully distracting". The film is absolutely stuffed with mirrors and reflective shooting angles (a Fassbinder trademark), which obviously attempt to support the theme of perceived identity. Sounds great...and it would have been, in smaller doses. Luckily, the film's set design is a bit more tastefully done: sure, it's occasionally laughable in the same way those old computer ads are, but the stylish world on display is anything but drab. At worst, however, the framing of particular shots and sequences is purely self-indulgent, drawing attention away from the main characters to fill our eyes with needless background noise.

As far as pacing goes, the feature's 205-minute running time occasionally grinds to a halt, and we get the feeling that an hour could've been trimmed with minimal impact to the actual story. Hints of the impending mystery are provided early on...but after the initial reveal of Stiller's perceived "condition", the film dives headfirst into a painfully repetitive string of character interactions, extremely tight zooms and stiff performances by most of the supporting cast. I understand they're supposed to be artificial inhabitants of a virtual world, but it weighs heavy on a story that didn't need such explicit reminders. Luckily, Klaus Löwitsch's performance and his character's perspective help to keep this film's head above water, even when so many other aspects of this production threaten to sink it.

Criterion's Blu-Ray release of World on a Wire follows the film's restoration and unveiling at Berlin's 2010 International Film Festival and a limited theatrical run. It presents this flawed but fascinating film in its best possible light, pairing a strong technical presentation with a few appropriate extras.

Karl-Heinz Vosgerau as Herbert Siskins (l) and Kurt Raab as Mark Holm (r) - Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Recently unearthed and restored by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of World on a Wire is uniformly excellent. The 16mm source obviously shows a healthy amount of film grain, the stylized color palette is represented well and digital imperfections are basically absent. A handful of specks, vertical lines and other print damages appear to be source material issues. Overall, it's an impressive visual presentation from start to finish.

Similarly, the LPCM 1.0 audio track (presented in the original German, with optional English subtitles) also holds up nicely. There's a surprising thickness to the dialogue; it's very crisp and well-defined, even though a number of scenes seem to have been dubbed in post-production very badly. Obviously there isn't much dynamic range or any attempts at atmospheric effects, but what we get here is certainly ideal under the circumstances. Again, a top-notch effort that fans should be pleased with.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, this disc is packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, which includes attractive double-sided artwork and a Booklet with an essay by critic Edward Halter. The menu designs are clean and concise, everything loads quickly and this disc is locked for Region "A" playback only. This 205-minute feature is divided into a generous 31 chapters; each half is also playable separately.

Bonus Features

Just a few extras, and only one is exclusive to this Criterion release: it's a newly-recorded Interview with film scholar Gerd Gemunden (36 minutes), who provides a nice overview of the film's impact and its place in Fassbinder's prolific collection of work. We also get a recycled Featurette entitled "World on a Wire: Looking Ahead to Today" (50 minutes), directed by Juliane Lorenz. The featurette's most valuable contributor is cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who goes into modest detail about the film's careful restoration and visual themes. Last but not least is a Theatrical Release Trailer (2 minutes) from 2010.

All bonus features are presented in 1080p and include English subtitles for translation purposes only.

Final Thoughts

With such prophetic source material as its backbone, first-time viewers will expect to be blown away by World on a Wire...but the film's repetitive, heavy-handed visual themes and lukewarm second act make it more of an exercise in patience. Even so, there's a certain charm to Klaus Löwitsch's performance as the strapping, likable Fred Stiller, and it's his descent into perceived madness that creates the film's most engaging moments. Criterion's Blu-Ray release is a well-rounded effort, pairing a strong technical presentation with a few thoughtful bonus features. Overall, it's a fine package for Fassbinder disciples, but new viewers may want to approach this expensive release with a bit of caution. Rent It.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. He also enjoys slacking off and writing stuff in third person.

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