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World on a Wire

Movies | The 1973 film asks: What is illusion, and what is real?

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

Just as everyone has finished philosophizing over whether Facebook friends are real friends or illusions, a new social media outlet is birthed and we are putting both our real and virtual friends into virtual circles meant to mimic the real world.

Although we suppose this reality-blurring to be a new dilemma, World on a Wire took up the theme in 1973, when computers filled up a room and people dialed on phones that were anchored to walls. And as legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder ably showed, Aristotle and Plato pondered the same sort of question centuries ago: What is illusion, and what is real?

In this two-part miniseries recently released in American theaters, the government has created Simulacron, a computer program that has engineered a virtual world filled with "identity units" who behave and live and think like humans. Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) takes over the project when the former director, Henry Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), dies suddenly, leaving hints that he has uncovered an unsettling secret. Then Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny) vanishes right before telling Stiller this secret, as if someone deleted him with the push of a button.

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In Fassbinder's open and brilliantly constructed set, the viewer looks in on the characters as if seeing them behind glass, like a programmer would look down at the simulated world he created. The characters' images are repeatedly reflected in mirrors and glass, which skews the viewer's perspective and recalls the opening scene, when Vollmer orders a stuffy government official to look in a mirror and contemplate whether he is real or merely a reflection of how others see him.

In Christian theology, we "see through a glass, darkly" at what is real and believe that this world is a pale shadow of a world more real. In World on a Wire, this sensibility destabilizes those who grasp it. That's partly because of who is in charge-a megalomaniac-and the unanswered question of whether one can reach a world that's real.

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