Originally published Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 3:02 PM

Movie review

'World on a Wire' weaves it own fake reality

A movie review of "World on a Wire," director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's lengthy, often fascinating 1973 adaptation of Daniel Galouye's 1964 novel about a simulated existence that's making its Seattle debut at Northwest Film Forum.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'World on a Wire,' with Klaus Löwitsch, Ingrid Caven, Eddie Constantine, Christine Kaufmann. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, from a screenplay by Fassbinder and Fritz Müller-Scherz, based on a novel by Daniel Galouye. 205 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains violence, brief nudity). In German, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.

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Decades before "The Matrix," "Avatar," "eXistenz" and their spinoffs appeared in multiplexes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed this lengthy adaptation of Daniel Galouye's 1964 science-fiction novel about a simulated existence, "Simulacron-3."

The similarities are fascinating. The differences are even more so. While 1999's "The Matrix" is dominated by innovative special effects, Fassbinder's 1973 thriller, "World on a Wire," is a film of ideas.

Thanks to the Fassbinder Foundation's excellent 35mm restoration (supervised by Michael Ballhaus, the original cinematographer), the Fassbinder movie is making its Seattle debut this weekend at Northwest Film Forum. Long unavailable, it starts slowly, then develops an irresistible momentum.

In "The Matrix" and its sequels, Keanu Reeves plays a hacker who discovers that he's living in an intricate illusion managed by computers. In Fassbinder's film, Klaus Löwitsch is Fred Stiller, a hunky cybernetics engineer who makes a similar discovery.

One of the few Fassbinder actors who had some success in American films ("Firefox," "Gotcha"), Löwitsch plays Stiller as a James Bond type. He radiates European machismo and even looks a bit like Sean Connery.

Very much a film of its time, "World on a Wire" was originally shown as a two-part West German television movie. The melodramatic tone, the outlandish makeup and eclectic use of music (from Wagner to Elvis) sometimes verge on tongue-in-cheek.

What distinguishes it today is its exploration of the idea that a threatening alternative world could create thousands of "identity units" and be capable of predicting the future. Fassbinder was especially drawn to the notion that, in his words, "its inhabitants cannot be aware of their true nature."

John Hartl:

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