17 January 2012

Stylish Films: Welt am Draht

I'm by no means a movie buff, but I do enjoy them as much as the next guy. Not one for Hollywood, or the folks who populate it, I tend to prefer highly stylized movies that are as fun too look at as the story is good. Clearly, this proclivity leads me to numerous foreign films, and lots of old ones. I'm especially enamored of 1970s futuristic dystopia flicks, and I may just have found the penultimate one. A long time fan of A Clockwork Orange and Brasil, I have to say that World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) by prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder takes the prize.
Originally aired in two parts on German television in 1973, this three hour masterpiece is a real trip. But I'm not going to discuss the plot here, that's what Wikipedia is for (see here). Instead, I'd rather discuss style and decor, and make once again my argument that we not discount the entire decade that was the 70s out of hand as an aesthetic wasteland. 

Truth be told, the look of this movie is my decor ideal. The buildings have a brutalist vibe, all white concrete and glass cubes. The cars outside are big and luxurious, with lots of corners. Inside, the decor is that rare and difficult to reproduce early 70s post-modern eclectic blend of things like stark white rooms containing a mixture of glass and chrome furniture, ornate antiques, brightly colored plastics, oriental rugs, classical busts, abstract paintings....and maybe a German motorcycle helmet attached to wires suspended over a Le Corbusier lounge chair that allows one to connect with the simulated computer world. So much cooler than my Toshiba laptop. And let's not forget the big heavy analog technology all over the place. Sub-titles (and everything else) in Helvetica are de riguer. The people you see in magazines like Dwell think they get it, but it's just not the same.
See what I mean? In all the office scenes, this character is always shot in reflection in this weird silver globe, rubber tree plant behind here, electric typewriter before her.
And that's what the cafe looks like. One of those light fixtures is cool enough, but a couple dozen of them covering the entire ceiling? Unstoppable.

Clothing-wise, we get a lot of men in business suits. As one might expect, the ties and lapels are really wide, and we get some awful black shirt/white tie combinations, but generally speaking there's a real 1930s vibe running through it, as seen here in main character Fred Stiller's hat and chalk striped double breasted suit. At other points in the film, he wears a grey tweed suit with a half belt and pleated back. Not all bad, if a bit exaggerated. Remember, the 1970s were the last period when a man in an office dressed this way was not eccentric or unusual. The details may not be to our liking, but the but the overall concept of dressing well as a matter of course hadn't yet died.

Frequent scenes feature characters in evening wear. Not for trips to the opera or anything like that, just restaurants and dinner parties. Tom Ford, by the way, can thank our Herr Lowitsch for not only the strikingly masculine tailoring of his clothes, but also his haircut. And hipster girls all over Brooklyn don't even know what they owe to Mascha Rabben.

Even this guy, evil-security-director Edelkern, looks sharp, and surprisingly timely, in his navy three piece suit paired with awning striped shirt and solid grenadine tie.

Clearly, this dude is the bad guy, Herbert Siskins. If his haircut doesn't give him away, surely the brown shirt does. However, his office is one of the most knockout scenes in the whole movie. It's spacious and bright, filled with white furniture and lots of glass, punctuated by large plants and huge colorful paintings. At one point, he calls a press conference there. As they are speaking, the camera pans across a long buffet of "snacks" for the reporters, a long table laden with gourmet European food, including a number of pheasants, and an ocean of Champagne and fine Riesling (it is Germany, after all).

I love this movie. If you've got three hours to kill, watch it. Hulu Plus has a good version with subtitles. Looks like I've found a new (anti) hero in this Fassbinder cat.

Update: here's a link to an interesting short film on "the making of...", also worth a look.

p.s. Speaking of why stuff from the 70s may actually be, dare I say it, cool, I've finally gotten around to adding Barima to the blog-roll. That kid gets it for sure, go see.

p.p.s.new stuff in the Shop.


Anonymous said...

Just curious as to your intent..."penultimate" means next to last, so is there a film better than this?

The Midwestern Gentleman said...

After reading this, I now want to see the film. It looks pretty good.

Anonymous said...


Giuseppe said...

There's always something better out there.

Thanks for the grammar lesson. Now, can we discuss the matter at hand?

Barima said...

You'll be unsurprised to learn that I'm grateful and flattered for the compliments and linkback, of course

Now, this was an edifying read for me. I also have a thing about such clean, eclectic interiors that are almost brazen in their artificiality and yet strangely welcoming in their exceution (it's the way things are put together, I'd say)

The light fixtures strongly remind me of those in House MD's hospital cafeteria; I'm quite fond of them, also

This is the sort of thing I should write up, now and again. Well played



Young Fogey said...

Brutalism is, in my estimation, anti-human. A college campus I am familiar with has several Brutalist structures, prompting one wag to call the book repository "Sauron's Evil Library."

Of course I can't abide the sterile glass-and-steel monstrosities foisted off upon us by the International Style, either. They make me shudder.

Having said that, I actually like the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles. I think they retain enough humanity to be accessible.

Like G, I think that the 70s had their good points. For a celebration of that decade, is there any better spot on the web than The Selvedge Yard?

JKG said...

Touchy. I followed the word to your mention of "A Clockwork Orange" and inferred that you thought of that as the "ultimate." It's a legitimate question to ask if there's one that rates higher for you, if we give you credit for choosing the word intentionally. Aren't stylish films the matter at hand?

Anonymous said...

It was a vocabulary lesson not a grammar lesson.



Anonymous said...

I wrote the first message. Please accept my sincerest apologies as my intent was not to offend but to ask if there was another film you thought better as JKG asks.

Giuseppe said...


If I didn't waste so much time making my own mistakes, than I could spend more time trolling the internet picking nits for others. I bet it's fun.


As I said, there's always one better. The thrill is in the search.

JKG said...

Would you call that style "mid-century modern?" I like it as a visual experience but I wouldn't enjoy living in it. I like brutalism as a concept, but it doesn't help the cityscape (in my view). It's an interesting balance -- if find that when it's allowed room to be itself it does very well but that in practice very few institutions give enough free reign to the designer. When these spartan styles come up short, the result is horrible. Thoughts?

Sheik of Araby said...

Ooh, dictionary games! Let me play!

Does pedantry cause pederasty, or is the correlation merely coincidental?

Giuseppe said...


agreed. But that's why I think it works so well when punctuated by lush antique items and large plants. It's not for everyone, and I doubt my family could live in it. If I were a bachelor, maybe. But the harshness can be a bit much.

"Mid century modern" is a term I use to describe the sort of scandinavian/teakwood/clean lines look of the late 50s/early 60s. Don Draper's office, for example.

Young Fogey said...


Brutalism is centered on the use of raw concrete (in French, b├ęton brut, hence the name). I'm not sure there's any way to make it not Spartan. The International Style relies heavily on steel and glass; while not necessarily Spartan, they are certainly cold materials.

Even if we expand the discussion to include the International Style, you still get horrible results: as they say in computing circles, it's a feature, not a bug. Both styles are driven, to greater or lesser extents, by socialist utopian ideology, and as such, are inherently cold, oppressive, and unfriendly. Unless surrounded by similar structures, Brutalist/International buildings are so different from their environs as to make them alien, and therefore alienating.

It could be argued that "Mid-Century Modern" is an attenuated form of the International style; I think it could also be argued that it is a continuation of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne.

Clean lines and modern materials are one thing; starkly angular raw concrete in overbearing, top-heavy buildings is another. Regardless, I haven't seen a single post-WWII building that can hold a candle (aesthetically) to a well-crafted pre-war one.

JKG said...

YF: I usually think of the one showing up on the inside of the other. Maybe I have that wrong.

I think I have a grasp of the institutional manifestation of brutalism -- the soviet-era monumental buildings (and monuments) that dot (sometimes blight) eastern Europe come to mind. But maybe you can help me categorize some others:

There's the School of Architecture building at Yale. I don't like what it does at street level, but does it even qualify? There's the UConn University Health Center in Farmington, CT, which I really, really like -- in fact I like it so much that I think I must be wrong about whether it qualifies as brutalism. The library on the campus of UCSD. Where does that fit in?

I agree that well-designed pre-war architecture is inherently warmer and more human -- and often, in my impression, this is due to classical cues which might explain in part why art deco humanizes. But comparing the pre- and post- is hard for me since (again, in my impression) so much of post-war architecture was driven by a desire to abandon what came before for something completely new. There's bound to be failure. I wonder if we've given up or played it out? (I say we because architects don't build; owners do.) One of my favorite postwar skyscrapers is the Grace building in NYC. I think of that as a lovely design that scales the huge down to human. Anyway, I'm open to getting smarter about all of this.

I realize we've drifted far afield from style and thrifting, so I hope G will indulge, at least in the comments.

Young Fogey said...


Considering that G was once an architecture student, I think he will continue to indulge us.

According to our old pal Wikipedia, the Yale Art and Architecture Building is Brutalist. It strikes me as an ugly jumble of rectilinear chaos. I can hardly imagine how awful it would be to actually have to use the building.

As for the UConn Health Center, the pictures I've seen suggest Brutalist influence, but I'm not sure it's "pure" Brutalist. The hideously ugly raw concrete will discolor and crack with age, only enhancing its coldness by adding a patina of decay.

UCSD's Geisel Library is, according to Wikipedia, "a prime example of brutalist architecture." Suffice it to say that it has none of the whimsy or joy that the works of the man it is named for exhibit.

My personal experience with the Brutalist buildings of a certain college campus left me with the feeling that they are cold, inhuman, user-unfriendly, and Just Plain Ugly. Unlike the best architecture, which, like the best art, uplifts and inspires, that campus made me feel like what I imagine citizens of the Soviet Bloc felt like: oppressed, demoralized, and insignificant.

The Grace Building looks like a garden-variety International Style glass-and-concrete box to me. Sure, the curves are nice, but I think that Portland's Wells Fargo Center does curves better, and is less sterile, though it is still not beautiful.

You said, "...so much of post-war architecture was driven by a desire to abandon what came before for something completely new." This is true of both art and architecture, and is what is wrong with both fields in the post-war period (though the roots go deeper than that; some say all the way back to Rousseau). Certainly Dada and Cubism, to name but two, are anti-traditional, and predate the war.

While in architecture the International Style has been supplanted (to a degree) by both Modernism and Postmodernism, art still suffers from the rejection of the past. Truth be told, most modern artists lack the technique of their forebears, and attempt to compensate for that with "originality" and outrageousness. I am not a fan.

Giuseppe said...

There is a lot of truth to what you say, Fogey. But the modernists and internatiolists didn't all reject the past out of hand. Le Corbusier's own writing is rife with references to the perfection of scale and design of the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. What he hated was the idea that with new form of building technology making new things possible, architects had taken to the habit of slapping stylistic veneers, such as classical or Tudor details, over inherently modern steel skeletons. I think at heart what he and many of his forbears agrgued for was not that we rejact the past, but rather embrace the future. The results are frequently less than perfect, but to reject an entire epoch of architecture as inherently worse that that which it replaced is a gross generalisation. After all, a building is a static object. It is given life (or not) by who uses it and how they use it.

Look into Louis Kahn. His architecture manages to be post modern and deeply human all at once.