Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

The Perfect Panopticon: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Welt Am Draht

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

The Perfect Panopticon: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Welt Am Draht

Article excerpt

Immersion and paranoia

In her seminal definition, Janet Murray characterises immersion as 'the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus' (98-9). While it is often considered a desired aesthetic effect of media such as cinema or video games, immersion has a paranoid downside: the fear that it could be too perfect, that the other reality might become indistinguishable from the true world. Films like eXistenZ (Cronenberg Canada/UK 1999), The Matrix (Wachowski brothers US/Australia 1999) and The Thirteenth Floor (Rusnak Germany/US 1999) illustrate this anxiety. Released in the same year as The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan US 1999) and Fight Club (Fincher US/Germany 1999), they too can be considered examples of what Thomas Elsaesser calls 'mind game movies' since the ontological status of their filmic realities is, to a certain degree, unclear. This is because the characters are not always capable of distinguishing between the real and the artificial. They believe themselves to be in the true world while they are in fact immersed in a virtual reality created by computers. Consequently, the last year of the old millennium was not merely the year of mind games but also of immersion paranoia.

However, fear of immersion was being articulated much earlier than this. It is evident in stories such as Frederik Pohl's 'Tunnel under the World' (1955) and novels such as Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (1959). Stanislaw Lem described it in 1964 in the sixth chapter of his Summa technologiae, in which he predicted a society in which advanced immersive technologies - and the resulting anxieties - have become common. In the same year, the US sf writer Daniel F. Galouye published the novel Simulacron-3, also known as Counterfeit World, whose hero discovers that his whole life is and has always been a computer simulation. The Thirteenth Floor is, in fact, an adaptation of Galouye's novel, but not the first one. Produced by a group of Germans working in Hollywood (among them Roland Emmerich, director of several big-budget sf movies),1 it is also a remake of a 1973 West German television movie based on the novel. The title of the TV movie was Welt am Draht (World on a Wire),2 one of its cinematographers was The Thirteenth Floor's executive producer, Michael Ballhaus,3 and it was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who is widely considered the most important German filmmaker of the second half of the twentieth century.

Welt am Draht is one of Fassbinder's forgotten works. Due in part to legal issues, it is still not available in domestic viewing formats, although the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation is planning a DVD edition to be released in, probably, 2010. In the major literature about Fassbinder, Welt am Draht only receives minor attention. His only contribution to the sf genre, it is considered marginal to his work. However, Welt am Draht is more complex than it may seem at first. It not only introduces immersion paranoia into sf film long before the Wachowski brothers could even think of The Matrix, but does so through visual strategies which are rather different to those of the 1999 films mentioned above and which address some crucial political questions of the video and postvideo society. This article will highlight these aspects by showing how Welt am Draht creates an aesthetics of disappearance within an aesthetics of the hyperreal and thus depicts the dialectics to which the body is subject in the age of electronic surveillance.

Stiller's detection and salvation

Although it is an sf movie, Welt am Draht is located in a setting quite similar to West Germany at the time it was produced. In fact, there is only one major difference: the world of Fassbinder's film is far more advanced than the 1970s in terms of digital technology. The Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung (Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology) has developed a computer program called Simulacron, which in today's terminology would be called a virtual reality system. …

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