By the time he's become convinced that the world he inhabits is in fact just a computer simulation of reality, stressed-out tech maestro Fred Stiller (seen above in "action" mode) is also convinced that he can prove this, by either creating or uncovering a "glitch" in the simulation. He believes he's already seen at least one; if not the into-thin-air disappearance of his friend and colleague Lause, directly prior to the revelation of a "wild" pronouncement by another, recently deceased (under mysterious circumstances, of course) co-worker, then the "disappearance" and reappearance of an entire street while out driving with the enigmatic and seductive Eva, the daughter of the dead man, who Stiller happens to be replacing on a huge project. That project, naturally, being...a computer simulation of our reality, set sometime in the future, whose revelations could prove quite beneficial to certain corporate interests.
As Stiller sets about seeking his glitch—which, he theorizes, would be the result of either some fried circuitry or imperfect software—the viewer of Welt am Dracht is likely to have experienced several glitches himself. Director/co-writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic two-part 1973 film, made for German television, is about as mind-bending as moviemaking gets, and not just because of the sci-fi premise. The film is simultaneously constantly piss-taking and deadly earnest, a labyrinthian riot of scenes seen solely via reflective surfaces, set in an only vaguely futuristic world where characters do their expository walk-and-talks around a small indoor swimming pool whilst a male Marlene Dietrich impersonator swoons about.* the film, the riches of which include an extended scene that pays snarky homage to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, sometimes resembles a mind-meld of Kubrick and Alfred Jarry, Fassbinder and lensers Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz running the show on screen with wildly anarchic creativity while the characters in it are in near-constant torment over who's running their show. Characters in zombie makeup out of Carnival of Souls pop in and out of the film's two (at least at first) depicted "worlds," one ostensibly "upper" and the other "lower," and while one realm is not ever depicted as more materially desirable than the other, those who "know" that they are "simulations" become desperate to transfer to the upper world, because then they will have the assurance of being "real." That individuals in the upper world are discovering that they themselves might lack "realness," well, you can imagine the problems this can create. Zeno's paradox is invoked, as is Einstein, but the question that animates Stiller's quest centers on that of "realness," although the character never steps back and asks "What's the difference?" Perhaps it's the hope that the world above his own is a better one than he inhabits. Where this all leads is...well, very much worth experiencing.
There is not a dull frame in this 207-minute film, a threadbare masterpiece that positively revels in its lack of traditional "production values," not to mention a purposeful disjointedness. (Incidentally, its source material, a novel by Daniel F. Galouye, was later the basis for the far more conventional 1999 sci-fi picture The Thirteenth Floor.) That it's acted by a cast of Fassbinder regulars—including Klaus Lowitch as Stiller and Horrors of Spider Island bombshell Barbara Valentin (left) as a bombshell secretary—easily recognizable to fans of the filmmaker gives the whole thing a familiar/odd effect that it might not have had on German TV back in the day. But that effect will certainly come into play for viewers lucky enough to be able to see the North American premiere of the film, in a version restored by the museum and The Fassbinder Foundation, beginning April 14 at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art (full screening schedule is here). It might be early in the year to say such a thing, but I honestly can't imagine a North American film event topping this one in 2010. (It may further blow your mind, after seeing the film, to contemplate that Fassbinder was only 28 years old when he made it.) And no, I can't wait for the DVD version of this, although no word on a domestic one has come around yet. There's a German edition, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this gets a Berlin Alexanderplatz-worthy treatment from Criterion. It deserves one.
*As our friend Chuck Stephens points out (in his way, in comments), Solange Pradel, who plays the Dietrich impersonator in Welt am Draht, is in no sense "male," and, having seen Rollin's Le viol du vampire, I had been aware of this fact...and failed to call it up when rushing out this rave. But I think Chuck will agree with me that Pradel performs the Dietrich stuff very much in the manner of a drag queen, and it registers that way, making the mind-fuck involved all the more complex.