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Strange, I always thought switching minds was a utopian joke.

World on a Wire
(Welt am Draht)
(1973)

(SPOILERS) I wasn’t even aware of World on a Wire, chastening as it is to admit, until I revisited The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and discovered that not only was it based on a novel but that it had also been adapted quarter of a century earlier. I’ve seen it suggested that Rainer Werner Fassbender’s two-part TV film wipes the floor with the later Hollywood production, but that isn’t really fair. It certainly boasts the more rudimentary idiosyncrasies of its era, a much more compelling lead performance in its favour, and the chance to breathe more, but both versions are entirely valid and engrossing takes on the source material.

Fred: With Simulacrum we have, in a word, a tiny universe identical to our own.

They also both stick quite closely to the novel, albeit World on a Wire more so. The Thirteenth Floor doesn’t really dig in to the economic rationale for the simulation, while Fassbender runs with Simulacron-3 author Daniel F Galouye’s concept that it would be utilised for marketing research (which is entirely, mundanely plausible). Simulacrum’s application is to “learn consumer habits twenty years from now”, planning and engineering society and demand based on projections: “How housing needs will evolve, which transport modes will become obsolete, and which will be in use”. A subplot concerns a journalist investigating government collusion with private industry (specifically steel), but officially, Simulacrum is designed to ensure a “Better, newer, more equitable and humane world”.

Eva: His power over this artificial world drove him crazy.

In both adaptations, a key figure in the project dies mysteriously (here Adrian Hoven as Professor Vollmer) and another personnel member (Klaus Lowitsch as Fred Stiller) looks into the matter. In both, an inhabitant of the simulacrum – Gottfried John’s Einstein – escapes in the body of a “real” person (Gunter Lamprecht’s Fritz Walfang). In both, this also provides a crucial precedent to main protagonist’s escape to the real real world above. In both, the “daughter” of the dead key figure appears (Mascha Rabben as Eva Vollmer), as if from nowhere, and begins a relationship with the protagonist. And in both, it is revealed that she is from the real real world, and that she really does love the protagonist, because he is a decent version of the man from the real real world who has become corrupted and deranged (and whose body will ultimately enable the protagonist to escape his shackles).

Einstein: I want to be a human being. And I will. This is the first step. I’ll make the next one, too. Into the real world.
Fred: What do you mean, the real world? This is the real world.

World on a Wire is often quite slow moving and has a tendency to drag its heels at times, but where it scores over The Thirteenth Floor is in verisimilitude. Well, relatively. There’s a sense of the mundane and unadorned, despite the “futuristic” 70s version of high-tech. This is a world of mirror views, burnt orange curtains and unvarnished cinematography out of The Sweeney (from Fassbender regular Michael Ballhaus).

All of which goes to make the solipsistic implications of an unreal world that much more acute. The creeping sense of the uncanny, as a trusted colleague disappears before Fred’s eyes and then – even more alarmingly – no one else has any recollection of his existence is precisely the kind of overwriting that underpins theories regarding the Mandela Effect (and beyond any Hadron colliding manipulation, it might suggest such effects support a simulation reading of our own world).

Fred: Right now, I’m just a bundle of electronic circuits too.

World on a Wire is much keener on digging into and discussing the philosophical implications of simulated worlds than The Thirteenth Floor and has the time to do so. The vanishing Lause (Ivan Desny) leaves behind a drawing of Achilles and the tortoise, one of Zeno’s Paradoxes (designed “to show their hypothesis that existences are many, if properly followed up, leads to still more absurd results than the hypothesis that they are one”). In the case of Achilles and the tortoise, motion is “proved” to be an illusion because no matter how fast he runs after the tortoise, which has had a head start, Achilles will always be behind “since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so the slower must always hold a lead”.

Hahn: Every day you reign like God over a miniature world you helped to create and which you mistake more and more for a real world. You can add and delete people at will.

Fred doesn’t really account for the interior lives of his creations (“To us, they’re mere circuits. But to them… They live just like we do... We’re alive. They’re like people on TV dancing for us”). However, Hahn (Wolfgang Schenk), the Cybernetics and Future Science (Institut fur Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung – IKZ) psychologist insists that Fred’s God-like power over them is the explanation for his strange experiences. It is his “guilt, depression and fear”. Fred’s offhand instruction to delete simulation unit Christopher Nobody (who aberrantly attempted suicide) leads to regret when he is unable to interrogate him about his realisation that he lived in a fake world (Einstein, the “contact” they need in the artificial world, insists he did not tell him of the artifice).

Einstein: Don’t send me back. It’s my only chance.

Fred becomes increasingly desperate when Einstein reveals a truth he never even suspected, that there is another world above his own. “The people in the simulation model think their world is the only real one” holds as true for him as it does for his “units”. In the second part, Fred begins to theorise that the methodology above must reflect their own for dealing with inconsistencies: “It has to look like an accident – so other units don’t suspect. The system remains stable”. Thus, there must be an Einstein in their world (as it turns out, there is not; Eva tells him “I’m the projection of a real Eva from the real world. We don’t have contact units anymore” because they were “a mistake”).

Fred: I can’t be alone in thinking that nothing really exists.

The second part spends much of its time preoccupied with a man-on-the-run plot, as Fred is pursued in an attempt to frame him for murder (like The Thirteenth Floor, there’s a tendency for the security/detectives to wear anachronistic hats, perhaps a giveaway that the real world is not what it seems). There’s an amusing conversation in a bar with Hahn, in which the illusory nature of their surroundings is discussed (“The real cigarettes are somewhere else. Where real people sit on real chairs. Is that a chair?”) Glitches in the matrix are also discussed (“And what would a glitch be like?”)

Eva: You’ve become a bit too intelligent for us.

Fred, unlike his fellow units, has been allowed to retain awareness of the changes occurring in his reality. The real Fred is “playing games with you” and “didn’t want to kill you right away” because he takes “enormous pleasure from your fear, and your despair”. This results in the most anomalous sequences, as Fred experiences aural and physical side effects. The discordant electronica is out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at its most experimental, and at times mashes up with classical music for extra dissonance. Fred suffers dizzy spells – “You get them when he tries to hook up with your mind” – that would presumably explain the odd scene in the first episode where, after asking for a light, he leaps out of the way as the woman he spoke to is crushed by falling concrete. Upon which, he casually takes a lighter from the body and sparks up his cigarette. It’s almost a non sequitur of the sort we’d expect in Philip Martin’s Gangsters. Later, a tree attempts to topple on him and a dog appears out of nowhere (which Fred shoots).

Eva: When I appeared you very quickly threw together a memory. That’s how simulation units are.

Unlike The Thirteenth Floor, there’s no – brief – suggestion of a third layer of reality above Eva’s world at the conclusion, but World on a Wire nevertheless creates a much more potent air of lingering unease due to its stylistic minimalism. And then there’s the use of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross over the credits, which somehow serves to underline the point: of almost nonchalant disturbance beneath the surface. For all the gloss of The Matrix, if we are living in a simulated world, it undoubtedly bears most resemblance to the one in World on a Wire. Give or take a few decades.


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