Welt am Draht: A Nietzschean Reading of Two Motifs

By Andy Xu

Upon viewing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s science fiction masterpiece Welt am Draht (1973) for a second time, I realized that it can be seen as an exploration of some of Nietzsche’s central ideas. In this short essay, I will examine the motifs of mirror and beauty in the film,  in order to explicate Nietzsche’s thesis that artistic creativity is the nature of human-world encounter.

Prof. Henry Vollmer is the director of the Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung (the Institute hereafter), which is home to a supercomputer simulating the lives of 10,000 virtual individuals who possess consciousness but have no knowledge of a reality outside their world. He is devastated by the following Schopenhauerian revelation: the world in which he is situated is not reality, but merely a simulation begotten by the curiosity of the real world. Three minutes into the film, Vollmer explains his research by asking his guests to look at themselves in a mirror. “Was Sie sehen, ist denn nicht genau das Bild, das man sich von Ihnen gemacht hat?” asks Vollmer. Calling his discovery a “trauriger Witz,” Vollmer sighs, soon to die a sudden and mysterious death.

This is the first occurrence of the mirror motif, a motif masterfully exploited throughout the film in the following fashion: a vantage point is carefully chosen so that, on screen, most of a character’s body, except for a side profile or a hand, for example, is concealed from the viewer. Facial features are captured with several meticulously positioned mirrors and presented as reflections.

That Vollmer uses one’s reflection in the mirror to illustrate his discovery reminds me of the following passage of Nietzsche:

“There exists no more repulsive and desolate creature in the world than the man who has evaded his genius and who now looks furtively to left and right, behind him and all about him. In the end such a man becomes impossible to get hold of, since he is wholly exterior, without kernel, a tattered, painted bag of clothes, a decked-out ghost that cannot inspire even fear and certainly not pity.”

The destructive thrust of Vollmer’s Schopenhauerian revelation seems not to lie in the antithesis between reality and virtuality, i.e., in the externality of virtual beings, because from the perspective of such a being, as is suggested in the film, the virtual world is as real as it can be. Rather, what is devastating resides in the constitution of virtual beings, i.e., in their internality. According to Vollmer, what they see in the mirror is not who they are, not who they think they are, and not even who they aspire to be. They are what they are programmed to be and that is what they see in the mirror. Real people everywhere, as criticized by Nietzsche, tend to be lazy, to hide their uniqueness and to decorate themselves with public opinions. The tendency to laziness and the decision not to be lazy can reasonably be regarded as the privileges of the real being if one takes into consideration that the virtual being is deprived of its uniqueness and thus also of such choice. However, Nietzsche would agree that the virtual being and the real being who discards his uniqueness in search of ease and stability do converge in their exteriority. Both lack the fluid, eruptive kernel of self-interpretation and self-determination that enables the occasional breaking of the hardened cocoon, the exterior, to realize self-transcendence. Formulated in terms of Nietzsche’s thesis of artistic creativity as the nature of human world encounter, what I argued above is the following: compared with the artistically creative nature of the real-human-real-world encounter, Vollmer’s question indicates that the hypothetical scenario of virtual-human-virtual-world encounter lacks such creativity precisely because in contrast to the “still undetermined” human proper, the virtual being is predetermined.

Nietzsche’s thesis on the nature of human world encounter, however, is not without its latent tension. Nietzsche formulates the problem that arises as such: “… [I]n short only because man forgets himself as subject, and indeed as an artistically creative subject, does he live with some degree of peace, security, and consistency; if he could escape for just a moment from the prison walls of this faith, it would mean the end of his ‘consciousness of self.’” Somehow the idea of an artistically creative subject is unsettling and burdensome. Similar or related concerns are raised in different contexts. Discussing memory and forgetfulness, Nietzsche writes this: “Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in the stream of becoming…” Comparing the Apollonian and the Dionysian drive, he writes this: “…[T]he ecstasy of the Dionysian state…contains…a lethargic element…But as soon as daily reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with a sense of revulsion; the fruit of those states is an ascetic, will-negating mood.” In all three instances above (the moment of artistic creativity, the extreme case of total unforgetfulness and the excess of the Dionysian state), one gains access to a liminal stage of transformation and transcendence, in which the unity of the individual self is unbearably ruptured. In other words, in those instances, one jumps out of the everyday state of being into a transformative and transcendental, albeit precarious and disruptive, state of becoming. The latter state, if left unchecked, is bound to poison the former.

What is the principle that can heal the wounds of becoming? I argue that Nietzsche’s answer would be the aesthetic justification of existence. Beauty provides the eternal justification of existence (existence is read here as inclusive of being and becoming if not as equivalent of being) and not just the momentary diversion that detains one from transcendence. The aesthetically justified unity of being should be distinguished from the stagnancy of immanence.


A still from the film exhibiting the mirror motif

In Welt am Draht, the idea of the aesthetic justification of existence can be illustrated by the romantic relationship between Dr. Fred Stiller and Eva Vollmer. When Stiller, the Institute’s director after Prof. Vollmer, discovers the existence of reality above his world, he speculates that there can be infinitely many layers of reality, each one realer than the one below. With such knowledge, Stiller loses his justification of existence and ceases to care anymore. Even if the transcendence from one lesser world to a greater, realer one is possible, the process of transcendence is endless and meaningless because no world and no life will ever be real enough compared to an even higher form of existence. Eva, the avatar of a real woman from reality, who assumes the identity of Prof. Vollmer’s daughter, appears as the cure for Stiller’s self-neglect. Eva, whose real name is never revealed, possesses the potential to personify beauty and mystery. Whereas Stiller frantically searches for the access point into reality, Eva is disappointed by her lover in reality: another Fred Stiller, but a megalomaniac one who creates the virtual world and becomes obsessed with his power over this world, finding consolation in virtuality. In a conversation, Stiller asks Eva if he resembles the real Fred Stiller. She replies that the resemblance lies only in appearance, not in character. “Fred ist größenwahnsinnig und du bist du. Ich liebe dich.” says Eva. Prof. Vollmer is, after all, mistaken about one thing: despite that on the outside, a virtual being is programmed, such a being is not hollow inside and has the kernel of self-determination.

The film culminates in an expected deus ex machina: the virtual Stiller is shot to death as programmed, but Eva switches the two Stillers’ consciousnesses. The virtual Stiller wakes up in reality in the real Stiller’s body as if waking from a dream. The background music (Mozart, Schumann, Johann Strauss II, Wagner, etc.) that accompanies much of the film stops and a silence reigns, as if in this world of reality, the music that reminds one of the will beneath a world of semblance is no longer needed. Stiller stands up without a word. He looks around and starts walking back and forth in the room, touching the windows, the curtains and the door. Like a child, he crawls on the floor and pats the carpet, amazes at the views outside the windows and quite innocently laughs. He then stares at Eva, who walks toward him. He slowly retreats and suddenly stops. He kneels and gently caresses Eva’s body. Swiftly standing up again, he lifts Eva up in ecstasy. The pair spin around wildly in the room in a choreographed fashion. Stiller lies down on the floor alongside Eva and utters the last words of the film: “Ich bin. Ich bin.

For the reborn Stiller, whether he has reached the ultimate reality, in which higher forms of existence is exhausted, ceases to be an important question. After this aesthetic reorientation of being, Stiller regains a childlike curiosity and retrieves the initial creativity of human world encounter, a scenario reminiscent of Heraclitus’ picture of the child on the beach. I end this essay with the following quote from Nietzsche: “Unschuld ist das Kind und Vergessen, ein Neubeginnen, ein Spiel, ein aus sich rollendes Rad, eine erste Bewegung, ein heiliges Ja-sagen.

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