Bright Lights Film Journal

As Above, So Below – World on a Wire and The Thirteenth Floor


For a long time, I avoided watching The Thirteenth Floor (above) due to the name Roland Emmerich in the credits. Emmerich was responsible in one way or another for such turkeys as the American Godzilla remake and 10,000 B.C.  However, prompted by Bright Lights After Dark commenter, Hal O’Brien, I finally screened the film and immediately noticed some other notable names connected to the project. To begin with, one of the film’s executive producers is Michael Ballhaus, the master cinematographer who worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, among others, and, more recently, with Martin Scorsese on The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. As the credits roll, we see the face of aging German character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was introduced to American audiences as the star of Fassbinder’s Lola. And then – a third Fassbinder connection – The Thirteenth Floor is based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, the same book that was basis of Fassbinder’s 1973 miniseries, World on a Wire, which Ballhaus photographed. In short, The Thirteenth Floor is producer Ballhaus’s remake of a film that he originally worked on as a cinematographer. The Ballhaus connection is immediately apparent in The Thirteenth Floor‘s cinematography which, though executed by someone I’d never heard of (Wedigo von Schultzendorf), is quite striking in a way that recalls Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as well as Ballhaus’s own work.


World on a Wire (German title: Welt am Draht) is groundbreaking on several fronts. Originally broadcast on German television in two parts lasting about two hours each, it is one of the first TV miniseries to have been directed by a major auteur (the other would be Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, also first broadcast in 1973). As such, it prepped the way for Fassbinder’s 15½-hour miniseries masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

But even more significantly, World on a Wire seems to be the first film of feature length or longer to have dealt with the sci-fi concept of virtual reality – people electronically “jacking in” to alternate universes. It was made roughly a decade before TRON (1982) and Brainstorm (1983), and almost 25 years prior to the wave of virtual reality films that appeared in the late ’90s: Strange Days (1995), Dark City (1998), eXistenZ (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), and, of course, The Matrix (also 1999) which upstaged and outgrossed all of them. Moreover, World on a Wire‘s idea of virtual realities that are nested inside one another like Russian dolls seems to have been one of the primary inspirations – most likely indirectly – for Christopher Nolan’s Inception. It’s all part of a still-ongoing trend that Michael Barrett referred to in a recent issue of Video Watchdog as “millenial unreality.”

The Plot: Something funny is going on at The Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science. People are dying or mysteriously disappearing and, in some cases, hardly anyone remembers that these people ever existed. One of the people who has died is Professor Vollmer, a head of the Institute and inventor of a cybernetically created artificial world filled with “identity units” who have the consciousnesses and other attributes of living people. The inhabitants of the simulated reality, Simulacron-1, have no idea their world is a fake. They were created by Professor Vollmer and other programmers in the “real world” based on themselves and those around them.

Professor Vollmer’s successor, a programmer named Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), begins an obsessive investigation of the disappearances, much to the consternation of his corporate bosses (pictured above). In particular, Stiller is interested in something Professor Vollmer had been trying to communicate to him just before his demise. Professor Vollmer had recently been jacking into an identity unit in the artificial world and, as part of his investigation, Stiller attempts the same thing. SPOILER ALERT: Professor Vollmer’s big discovery – in case you haven’t already guessed – is that the world Vollmer and Stiller inhabit is also a fake, programmed by people like themselves who exist on another higher level. A woman claiming to be Professor Vollmer’s daughter turns out to be a visitor from that higher plane.

Fassbinder’s direction of this material is sheer genius. He takes the same approach that Jean-Luc Godard took in Alphaville (1965), shooting in actual European locations that have a modernistic feel to evoke a world of the near future. Stiller, his investigator hero, is a noir tough guy like the character played by Eddie Constantine in Alphaville. (Constantine even makes a cameo appearance toward the end of Fassbinder’s film.) To enhance the futuristic feeling, Fassbinder and Ballhaus, his cameraman, make ample use of mirrors and glass in their carefully staged long takes.  Their achievement is even more impressive when one realizes they shot the whole project in 16 millimeter. Typically for Fassbinder, the ensemble performances are brilliant – the film is crammed with memorable characterizations by members of his stock company. The film has been wonderfully restored by the Fassbinder Foundation and is available in a Region 2 DVD from Second Sight. 


Directed by Josef Rusnak, The Thirteenth Floor returns to the American setting of Galouye’s source-novel. The film begins in a meticulously recreated version of 1937 Los Angeles – a combination of real Art Deco locations found in L.A. (including the Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House, also used in Blade Runner) and CGI. We follow a “rich uncle” figure played by Armin Mueller-Stahl (right) as he enjoys a night on the town in this retro world. This is a world that anyone with the cash to enjoy it would want to live in. The sequences set in 1937 L.A. are, in fact, the highlight of The Thirteenth Floor – they look particularly ravishing in Sony’s Blu-ray edition – and the rest of the movie regrettably pales in comparison.

We are, of course, in a virtual reality created by Mueller-Stahl’s Professor Fuller (The Thirteenth Floor’s equivalent of World on a Wire’s Professor Vollmer), and when he is murdered there, we return to the “real world,” contemporary Los Angeles, where his successor played by Craig Berko takes it on himself to investigate the crime – just like the protagonist of Fassbinder’s film.  Leading to a similar conclusion.

The Thirteenth Floor lacks the richness and wry humor of Fassbinder’s opus. For one thing, it’s half as long. The performances seem thin compared to the performances of Fassbinder’s rep company, with two exceptions – Mueller-Stahl as the Professor, and Vincent D’Onofrio in two roles: as a sleazy bartender in the 1937 L.A. world (above), and as the long-haired hippie living in contemporary L.A. who programmed him. D’Onofrio brings a pudgy intensity to these characterizations that recalls Fassbinder himself.

The Thirteenth Floor also loses World on a Wire’s political dimension. Fassbinder’s minseries shows us a fake world dominated by a corporatist oligarchy working hand-in-hand with a corrupt state. The Thirteenth Floor simply shows us a fake world.

Somewhere, Philip K. Dick is laughing.