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Lost Fassbinder Film To Play At MoMA


The Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art, one of the most treasured film resources in New York and a major archive of world cinema, will present a true rarity next week in their film program. WORLD ON A WIRE, a lost television film directed by New German Cinema wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder that not been seen since its original broadcast on German television in 1973, is being resurrected and presented at the inestimable institutons for a run from April 14 to 19. The restored film, which was first presented in February at the Berlin Film Festival, is Fassbinder's one excursion into science fiction, in a vision that seems especially timely in this year of AVATAR and the explosion of 3D cinema.

Fassbinder was amazingly prolific during his brief career, having produced more than 40 flms before his death in 1982 at the tender age of 37 from a drug overdose. Most of the films were produced for the cinema but a few films were conceived for television broadcast, most famously his adaptation of the iconic novel of the 1930s, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (conceived as a mini-series for German television and later shown in cinemas in its 10-hour plus entirety).

WORLD ON A WIRE, the director's one foray into the realm of science fiction, was clearly way ahead of its time in 1973. The film anticipates such later sci-fi classics as BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX, with its meditation on artificial and human intelligence and in its conception of reality as a computer-generated illusion.

Adapted from “Simulacron-3,” a 1964 novel by Daniel F. Galouye, the film revolves around a cybernetics corporation that has created a miniature world populated with “identity units” unaware that they are being controlled from above. Focusing on a singular researcher, the scifi wog eventually learns that what he has always known as the real world may itself be a simulation.  While the notion of Fassbinder, whose main oeuvre consisted of urban dramas about displaced outsiders and social misfits, and science fiction might seem a little outlandish, the futuristic thriller has many of the classic Fassbinder themes. The subjects of exploitation, manipulation, taboo and what it means to be human is very much at the heart of this tale about androids and the people who think they control them.

Since its broadcast in 1973, the film has been largely unseen. The current version was digitally restored by the Fassbinder Foundation under the supervision of its original cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. Running more than 3 1/2 hours, it is an intimate epic that has the sweep of a Ridley Scott film with the tension of a Jean Luc Godard nihilistic drama (with parallels to that director's ALPHAVILLE). 

The film's bleak modern urban landscape was especially striking. Using soulless modern architecture in the commercial rings around Paris, Fassbinder was able to use the city's new architecture to suggest an ominous future world. Shot on a strikingly low budget of $300,000, the film has an intoxicating look that is both familiar and startling.  It is one of the unsung masterpieces for cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who collaborated with Fassbinder on 15 of his films before becoming a Hollywood institution working with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

The strong visual content, the disarmingly contemporary atmosphere and the intimations of doom on the horizon give the film an added jolt that is completely appropriate for our current hi-tech, hi-anxiety zeitgeist. That Fassbinder was prescient in undertanding our intoxication and dependence on technology is yet another fascinating feature of this true modern genius whose career and life were cut short at such a young age. One can only imagine the works of art he could have produced if he had overcome his excess and fragility.

WORLD ON A WIRE is also a fitting avant-premiere of the annual KINO: New Films From Germany which will unveil a new generation of German directors at the Museum of Modern Art later this month. For more information, visit:

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor


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Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)

The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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