Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The 1973 film that anticipated being lost in VR

Worlds on a Wire
The 1973 film that anticipated being lost in VR

It’s a full hour into Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire when we glimpse the virtual reality simulation—the Simulacron—at the core of the film. Protagonist Fred Stiller puts on an absurdly oversized helmet, presciently similar to the ones rapidly making their way to market today, and then Fassbinder cuts to him exiting an elevator. Within the span of a single edit we are transported in a simulated world, indistinguishable from the “reality” in the previous shot. It hardly constitutes a spoiler to say that Stiller discovers his real world may not be so real after all.

World on a Wire is an outlier in Fassbinder’s filmography; he is best known for a host of savage psychodramas where people openly shit on each other’s whole lives, like 1972’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, rather than science fiction, which was a one-time stop for the German auteur. Yet the film feels totally his, from the affectless performances to the intricate cinematography. Fassbinder consumes the genre; it does not consume him.

World on a Wire
Actress Barbara Valentin seen through a reflection

The narrative bones of World on a Wire come from Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 Simulacron-3 (also the source material for The Thirteenth Floor, or 1999’s sci-fi movie that wasn’t The Matrix). Galouye’s novel represents one of the earliest stabs at conceptualizing virtual reality as we know it today, so it’s appropriate that World on a Wire codifies much of sci-fi cinema’s VR vocabulary.

The film’s successors, like Ridley Scott’s 1981 Blade Runner and, again, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, are big-budget, effects-laden movies: the former cribbed Fassbinder’s neon-bright lighting and noir chilliness, while the latter expounded on World on a Wire’s fondness for philosophical inquiry. Both films bolted their ideas to familiar genres like film noir and kung fu, helping the headier topics go down easy. Fassbinder, however, was a devotee of avant-garde, confrontational 20th-century playwrights/theorists Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht: in different ways they both argued for a sort of reality-shattering, political theater that allowed transgressive ideas to flourish onstage. Fassbinder often wielded his art like a weapon, marshalling every formal element in service of distancing and provoking the audience—anything to keep them critically engaged and aware.

In World on a Wire, this begins at the level of texture. The three-and-a-half-hour, two-part film was shot on 16mm in 1.33:1 for German TV. (Perhaps the only way the notoriously libertine Fassbinder could be called square was in his affinity for 4:3 aspect ratios.) The image is wonderfully blown-out, grainy, and saturated; even the Criterion remastering can only restore so much fidelity to the print. There is a visual barrier on the simplest level between the viewer and the film, a coating, a skin. We will always be at arm’s length, detail and clarity eluding us behind icy blue and luminescent white.

Are we looking into a mirror, or at the character themselves?

Then, by eschewing elaborate visual effects like those Stanley Kubrick employed in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and instead following from the lowkey style of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Alphaville, Fassbinder was able to depict virtual reality through nothing but montage and set design. Fassbinder shot in Paris, and made use of the city’s cutting-edge architecture as David Cronenberg’s early films made use of Toronto, isolating and recontextualizing real-world spaces as synecdoche for an uncanny future.

In one early scene, Fred Stiller is talking to another man; the former is standing, the latter sitting in a garish orange chair. By cutting between them instead of shooting the dialogue with both people in the frame at once, Fassbinder is able to spring a disorienting trick: in a reverse shot, suddenly the other man is gone from his chair, mid-sentence. Later, a man is revealed to be an entirely different person with one cut. Thus we’re set on edge, constantly unsure what to expect or which images to trust.

World on a Wire

The sets are absolutely loaded with mirrors, glass, and chrome; surely a logistical nightmare to shoot, but a constant visual marker of doubles, reflections, realities, and uncertainty. Are we looking into a mirror, or at the character themselves? The answer is not always clear. Fassbinder also stages props and actors so that when the camera moves through a room—as it does, always fidgeting and prowling—they suddenly pop into the extreme foreground of the frame, always reminding us of the limitations of our perspective.

The performances are equally obtuse; the actors variously swing from flat to overheated. Klaus Löwitsch, however, consistently plays Fred Stiller like a proto-Daniel Craig Bond, where suave surety is tunneled through with desperation and bullishness. Stiller somehow seems canny and lost at the same time, a man constantly struggling against brute instinct.  

Late in the film, Stiller watches a Marlene Dietrich impersonator lip-sync Dietrich’s 1945 propaganda song “Lili Marleen” (which played off Dietrich’s German ethnicity to ostensibly demoralize German soldiers) before reenacting onstage a scene from one of Dietrich’s movies, 1931’s Dishonored. It’s a notable moment both metatextually—Dishonored was one of Fassbinder’s favorite films, and World on a Wire is after all his own virtual reality, where his preoccupations swirl under the surface—and thematically, as we’re watching Stiller watch an impersonator sing a propaganda song before playing out a reenactment of a movie scene. It’s an explicit example of the almost monomaniacal fixation on doubling and refraction that occurs through every level of the film; even calling them levels suggests the tiered structure of the Simulacron reality.

World on a Wire
The sets are absolutely loaded with mirrors, glass, and chrome

The film’s narrative, too, warps in on itself by the end, culminating in a comically happy ending. To accept what we’re presented is almost impossible given the film’s visual language. If films teach us how to watch them, then World on a Wire is teaching us to be deeply skeptical of appearances. That warning, presented through every aspect of the film’s construction, is what resonates today.

VR in 2016 it isn’t about creating an “equitable world” like the Simulacron, but about proving its own artistic and technological worth through gut-level impact on the user, hitting them with concentrated doses of empathy and awe. We’re witnessing a medium in its infancy, at the point the Lumiere Brothers were at with 1895’s The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station: pushing the boundaries of visceral impact in thrilling, unprecedented ways.

But the tangled visual rhetoric and ritualistic doubling—what critic Ed Halter calls the film’s “mise en abyme,” or hall of mirrors—that occurs throughout World on a Wire urges us to be clearheaded as we move forward. There will always be one constant in any virtual world we create, from subreddits to universes: us. Fassbinder’s flat virtual reality is indistinguishable from our world because it is our world, and we its stupid, narcissistic, selfish gods.

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