World on a Wire is a 1973 German miniseries from director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It stars Klaus Löwitsch as Fred Stiller, the new technical director for a company developing a virtual reality program. His predecessor at the company, an unstable Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) has recently died, possibly because he knew something he shouldn't have.
Stiller, for his part, is a stable man. He's confident and collected. Or is he? When a colleague vanishes right in front of him at a party, no one but Stiller has any memory of him the next day. Is Stiller seeing things? Maybe. But at the same time, there are things about Stiller's world that don't seem right. Something about it feels staged. There are blank stares from strangers. A recurring high-pitched droning triggers dizzy spells. Then one night, while out for a drive, the world goes dark for a second, as if someone "up there" has just turned off the lights. Is it the world that's coming apart at the seams, or is it Stiller?
For a three hour-plus movie, World on a Wire moves briskly. It's divided in two parts and each feels distinctly different. The first half has the kind of mind-bending quality you find in Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories. The second looks like the kind of man-on-the-run story you'll be familiar with if you've seen North by Northwest, The Fugitive, or Minority Report. World even looks a little like Minority Report, with its grainy, overexposed cinematography. Obviously, World on a Wire predates Spielberg's film by a couple of decades, but the visual similarity helps it feel more contemporary than it might otherwise.
I'll leave it to better critics than me to dive into the movie's philosophical ideas, just like I'll leave to the Fassbinder experts to say where it ranks among the director's other films. For me, it all worked. I cared for Stiller, wanted him to succeed, and in the days since watching it, have mulled over its images in my mind. It's hard for a film to be more successful than that.