Light years before The Matrix, author Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3 (aka The Counterfeit World) first introduced the idea of inhabitants of a virtual world having their own consciousness, but unaware that they are computer generated.
In Fassbinder’s mind-bending adaptation, spanning two discs, a new supercomputer has been built to host a programme called Simulcron-1, an artificial world in which 10,000 identity units live as human beings.
Following the mysterious death of the scientist in charge of the project, Dr Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) becomes head of the facility. When his security head vanishes and his staff seem to have no memory of his existence, Stiller investigates.
After a simulated person attempts suicide, Stiller enters the programme to find out why. Making contact with an identity unit called Einstein (Gottfried John), Stiller learns a terrible truth: the real world is actually a simulation of a real world one level above.
Back in his own world, Stiller begins a gradual descent into insanity while trying to find out who killed his colleagues.
This is a mesmerising sci-fi helped hugely by the superb production design. For anyone into 1970s fashion and design, the sets, costumes, lighting and location shots are a wet dream. It might be a dense thriller, made more so by the heavy German accents, but taken in instalments, Fassbinder’s thriller is a revelation.