World on a Wire

As with many things, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was way ahead of his time. The unavoidable (and trite) dialogue concerning “Film vs. TV” has taken hold in some circles in this country as if it’s unveiling a revolutionary form of media progress, but in West Germany during the ’60s and ’70s, it was a common understanding that some of the best films were being made specifically for television.

Throughout the course of his career, Fassbinder made nearly 40 films. Fifteen of those, including two of his most famous—the two-part sci-fi epic World on a Wire and the 15-plus-hour opus Berlin Alexanderplatz—were commissioned specifically for the small screen. Six of these rarely seen films are included in part one of the “Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist” series taking place at Film Society of Lincoln Center: Bremen Freedom (May 22) Martha (May 23 & June 1), The Niklashausen Journey (May 19 & 24), Nora Helmer (May 22), Pioneers in Ingolstadt (May 20 & 23), and World on a Wire (May 25 & 26).

In discussing Fassbinder’s TV work, it’s key to note that his dystopian chamber pieces, full of miserable housewives, class issues, and sexually amorphous characters, populate his television films as comfortably as they do his theatrical work. In fact, there’s no difference in content or approach between the two, which is both refreshing and curious. How, 40 years ago, did Fassbinder get away with this?

He didn’t get away with it as much as it was encouraged by the powers that be. Post-WWII West Germany was a volatile and fragile environment in which government officials were keenly aware of the need to heal and promote democracy and free thought. So much so, in fact, that they brought in and modeled West German public television after Britain’s BBC, a then-paragon of broadcasting integrity, in an attempt to reeducate and stimulate the minds of citizens. Rather than numbers-driven programming from business-minded professionals, those in charge of broadcasting at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), where Fassbinder’s work was nurtured and presented, were intellectuals and artists, brought in under the charge of spreading culture and giving voice to all of Germany’s citizens. 


Fassbinder and fellow New German Cinema directors Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, among others, all worked extensively in television during this time. The medium gave these young artists time and money to create, most importantly, but also a wider audience than the then-dissipated film environment. It was a concerted effort on behalf of WDR, at the behest of the government at large, to cultivate fresh voices that spoke to a “new Germany.”

Much of Fassbinder’s early work serves as an extension of his Munich Anti-Theater, where he met frequent collaborators Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann. This work, such as Katzelmacher and Love Is Colder Than Death, both from 1969, feel very much like filmed plays, which makes sense because Katzelmacher, at least, was originally a play staged by the Anti-Theater. Fassbinder’s early dramaturgical aesthetic wasn’t a problem for the WDR; in fact, they welcomed the approach as part of their quest for 'high culture,' and as a more cost-effective production model.

Bremen Freedom, again based on one of his plays, finds Fassbinder at his biting best, following a disgruntled and put-upon 19th century housewife Geesche (a magisterial Margit Carstensen), who, fed up with the pervasive patriarchy of the day, exacts a slow-burning revenge on those around her. The staging takes place on one expansive set with scattered furniture and a wraparound backdrop onto which video of an undulating sea plays. It’s an ingenuous combination, and one that shows that Fassbinder, even when in theatrical mode, was always thinking outside the box.


Carstensen also stars as the titular Martha, a paranoid housewife who is the inverse of the avenging Geesche, as she is introduced as a confident, independent woman who is systematically broken down by a sadomasochistic husband. Fassbinder addressed this topic of female agency again and again, in Fear of Fear (again starring Carstensen as a controlled housewife), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, among others.

The television format proved particularly conducive to the l'enfant terrible’s evolving stylistic approach. After discovering melodramatist Douglas Sirk around the time of a 1970 Munich retrospective, Fassbinder’s style, heretofore dry and stagey, became more mannered and claustrophobic. This was when he hit his stride: beginning with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha, Fassbinder began utilizing both Brechtian and Sirkian techniques to create something unique and exciting; a heightened and rigorous sense of style that forced the viewer to think and analyze what it watched rather than succumbing to its emotional manipulation. Some critics are put off by this somewhat pedantic approach, but it’s a testament to the empathy Fassbinder feels for his characters that he’s able to combine these ostensibly disparate styles into something that rings true.

World on a Wire is one of the headiest sci-fi epics out there, and the fact that Fassbinder created it for a television audience should have put to bed the Film vs. TV debate decades before it became a blogosphere mainstay. It's only in the last five to ten years, with the surge of quality programming on the likes of AMC, HBO, and others, that the debate has even gained any credible traction; to that end, it's instructive to see Fassbinder as a harbinger of the content renaissance we currently enjoy.