So one of my guilty pleasure sci-fi favorites is the undervalued The Thirteenth Floor, and in researching that film, I discover that an earlier version had been made, and by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, no less. And it's a 3 1/2 hour German TV miniseries from the early 70s, which means it could very well be amazing. But it's not available! Then it shows for one week at the Museum of Modern Art, and despite taking an afternoon off work to see it, is completely sold out. Six months later it appears at the IFC Center, and when I try to go see it at 1pm on a Saturday, its only showtime, it's sold out. Meanwhile, expectations are rising fast--it must be AMAZING, right? So on my third attempt, I finally get in--and then sit for three hours of waiting for the brilliance to begin, and wonder what anyone really saw in this at all, and why one needed to sit through it. Not to mention how the first two hours could have been cut down to a half hour, and the whole thing delivered in a compact film of normal length, and been that much stronger.
Then one has cause to reflect on how, if a film is only showing for a week at MoMA and is largely inaccessible to anyone but film snobs, it will automatically then be the LOST MASTERPIECE OF ALL TIME and the UNDISCOVERED GEM that will SAVE ALL MANKIND. If this were widely released in multiplexes, or appeared on TV, as it originally did in Germany, it would just be crap. Please keep that in mind.
So we open in an office, with a bunch of guys sitting around. The spaces in this film are just slightly futuristic, in the manner of Alphaville or Code 46, and the guys all wear gangster-style suits, which is also just slightly jarring enough to pass as futuristic. We meet Vollmer, the current head of this virtual reality program called the Simulacron. It is a fully functioning computer-generated town with 10,000 people. "They're like people on TV dancing for us." Anyway, Vollmer says he feels like his head is going to explode, and in a second he runs into the server room and dies. His assistant, Fred Stiller, is made head of the project. This other dude, Siskins, is running the company as a whole, and seems sinister from moment one.
Spooky and menacing stuff starts happening. Stiller's friend Gunter vanishes in the middle of a conversation. There are intimations that Vollmer knew something that was destroying him (maybe it's that he could have saved 15% on car insurance?), and people are saying his death wasn't an accident. Stiller's secretary abruptly falls Ill and is replaced by the menacing Ms. Fromm, who viewers will recognize from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and other Fassbinder favorites. As in his other films, her role consists largely of staring at the main character in a slightly appalled way. At a certain point Stiller is driving along when the street disappears, only you'll have to take his word for it, since, as far as you can tell, the rear-projection just blanked for a moment.
SPOILERS > > >
Stiller meets Eva, the daughter of Vollmer. At a certain point she goes into a house, he follows her, but she has vanished. Blah, blah, mysterious thing here, mysterious thing there, all for two hours, until one of Stiller's friends shows up, and he realizes that it's Einstein in his friend's body. Einstein is their "contact unit" in the virtual world, the one person who knows that everything around him is an illusion, and he himself is not real. He has jumped into Stiller's world, and promptly informs Stiller that, guess what, HIS world is also a simulation. Chew on that, motherfuckers! This is the shocking conclusion of part one.
Part two is a bit more action-packed, which can help in the staying-awake department. Though not much. While the first part was just a bunch of walking around while creepy stuff happened, the second part is largely Stiller running around being tortured from above. At a certain point a construction crane follows him, holding a crushing load just over his head. He goes to Eva's house in the country, only to have a tree fall directly onto him, and the house explode seconds after he has leapt out of it. This second part is filled with Stiller doing silly things, which kept my audience affectionately laughing. It all goes on. I personally was sitting the saying "Please just END. Please just END."
The movie suffers from the same narrative problem as The Thirteenth Floor, which is that the villain calling the shots from above has never been seen, or known about, until the final moments. So for the last two hours Stiller has been the victim of a cruel God who is toying with him for his sadistic pleasure--which is Eva's husband, in the world above Stiller's. Who, furthermore, created Stiller in his own image. The explanation goes down smoother here than in Thirteenth Floor, which it was rather rushed--and let's face it, it is a narrative whopper--but that may also be because I KNEW what was coming. Can't judge how it might go down if you we new to all this. The very ending also (seems to) work a tiny bit better here, which is that Eva traps her husband in Stiller's body in the virtual world, and had switched him into her husband in the real world, then allowed her husband to die in Stiller's body down there. It's a super-awesome concept, it's just extremely difficult to express on film, and this film only partly succeeds, although one has to say it does a tiny bit better than Thirteenth Floor.
< < < SPOILERS END
This was made when Fassbinder was 27, fairly early in his career. But it shows a lot of his hallmarks, like careful mise en scene, showing a lot of frames broken up with mirrors, sometimes showing people appearing in them who are standing around, and Fassbinder's sense of intrusive people standing nearby, listening, as well as his old standby, women staring at the action as though appalled. But the miniseries format causes the whole thing to be stretched to over three hours, which is least an hour too much, which shows itself in the draggy beginning, where only a bunch of weird things are happening but little larger narrative, and the tedious second half, where Stiller is tormented here and tormented there. Actually, there's not too much story to tell here, it's mostly revelation of what's happening, delivered in dribs and drabs, giving the feeling that there's not much going on, just spooky event after spooky event, as we gradually put it all together.
Ultimately, and I know this is sacrilege, I think you're better off watching The Thirteenth Floor. Sure, this is notable for hitting the virtual reality thing before The Matrix and everything else, but Thirteenth Floor found a way to develop the foreground story in a way that has some momentum, as well as flesh out the virtual world (barely shown here) and develop the whole idea of moving between the levels of reality in a way that exposes new and emotionally-involving implications of the story. Yes, it also has a hard time demonstrating some of the more abstract ideas, but it comes up with a lot more to make up for it. This one remains of the greatest interest to hardcore Fassbinder fans, and while I'm glad it's finally available to them, no one else really needs to see it. I confess I was hoping for the German Solaris, but what we end up with is something that was perhaps justly forgotten.
If you're a huge Fassbinder fan.
THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR is a later version of the same novel, and is also convoluted, but can become a real guilty pleasure and this essay right here explains the whole thing for you!