INTERVIEW: Behind the Bars of "Das Experiment"; Oliver Hirschbiegel on the Universal Appeal of Prison Psychiatry
by Wendy Mitchell/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE: 09.19.02) — The German film “Das Experiment” is one of the most intense films of the year: it’s two hours of barely-clothed German men running around a pseudo prison facing mental manipulation and physical torture. The film, the directorial debut of Oliver Hirschbiegel, is adapted from Mario Giordano‘s novel “Black Box,” about a modern-day psychological experiment similar to Philip Zimbardo‘s famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. In “Das Experiment,” cabdriver and former journalist Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu) sees an ad seeking volunteers for a psychology experiment that will set up a mock prison. Intrigued by the cash payoff as well as the potential for a great newspaper story, Tarek signs up. On the inside of the “prison,” the volunteers are divided into prisoners and guards. Under the not-so-watchful eyes of the experiment’s scientists, Tarek starts provoking the guards, and violence follows.
“Das Experiment” was already a box-office smash at home in Germany, thanks in part to the star power of Bleibtreu (“Run Lola Run“). Samuel Goldwyn released “Das Experiment” in the U.S. today. indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell spoke to Hirschbiegel about German pride, on-set improvisations, and locking the cells on his actors.
indieWIRE: I wanted to start by talking about your background in television. What kind of programs did you work on?
Oliver Hirschbiegel: I did TV movies of various kinds: a mystery, a thriller, a cop thriller, and two dramas. I also directed a TV series [“Kommissar Rex“] that became very popular. It’s about a cop and his partner, who is a dog. It’s all set in Vienna. For me it was a nice excursion into the commercial television world. I learned a lot.
iW: Why did you choose the story of “Das Experiment” for your directorial debut?
Hirschbiegel: I started reading [Mario Giordano’s “Black Box”] and couldn’t put it down. I just had to read that novel. I read it the whole night through and finished it in the morning. I knew that this would be it. It just sat right. It reads a bit a like a Shakespeare play and it was convincing right from the beginning. All the characters are so believable in their situations.
I wanted to do this as a German film. I had a couple of offers to do English-speaking movies set in Germany, but I thought that was a little bit silly. I was really looking for something German. And this was a great opportunity.
iW: Why was it so important for you to do a German-language film?
Hirschbiegel: Because German film… t’s changing, but it had a bad reputation then. We had never shown in international festivals except for the really arty films. And that crossover of being responsible and dealing with real subjects that matter and still being entertaining and suspenseful, that’s not a typical thing for German films, but it’s very typical for me. It’s kind of my style. Also, it had to do with pride or something. I wanted it to be German.
iW: “Das Experiment” did very well in the box office in Germany. Why do you think Germans were so attracted to this film?
Hirschbiegel: I think it is a pretty universal story. It seems to work all over the world because it deals with universal emotions. I think anyone in the world can imagine how it might feel to be in that situation. The film’s prison situation is just a copy of what you would find in any prison in any country in the world these days. People seem to be able to relate to that.
The Germans also love Moritz Bleibtreu. He’s practically our number-one star here. Still, I was surprised. My hopes were to get half a million people into the cinema, and it turned out to be nearly two million. I don’t know.
iW: Were you ever concerned that your film might perpetuate negative stereotypes about German violence or intensity?
Hirschbiegel: No, I wasn’t worried about that because I think it’s a universal scene we’re dealing with.
iW: Right. It could’ve happened anywhere. The Stanford Prison Experiment [Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment] happened in sunny California.
Hirschbiegel: Exactly. I later found out that all the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment were students. In our story the participants came from various backgrounds. Some were unemployed, others were students, one guy was a manager in a very good insurance company. At Stanford, they were all educated young men, yet they behaved in the same manner.
iW: I want to talk a little about the process the long process you had in adapting the book into the screenplay. How many cooks were in the kitchen?
Hirschbiegel: All together there were four cooks. The first cook was the writer of the novel [Mario Giordano]. We teamed up, sat down and brainstormed. He was to write the screenplay. After a while we both realized that it didn’t really work out the way we wanted because he didn’t have a lot of experience in screenplay writing. After six months and four or five drafts, we decided to stop it and get someone new involved. I called Don Bohlinger, an American writer I had collaborated with on a TV movie. He was a great help, especially with structure. He wrote six drafts, yet I wasn’t really happy with any of them either. The drafts had very good elements, great ideas like, “Take him out and shave his head and pee on him!” But that’s not a German idea…
iW: That’s an American’s idea!
Hirschbiegel: I wasn’t entirely happy with his drafts, and then something funny happened. Christoph Darnstadt, another writer who was working on a pilot script for TV, had just read our screenplay and was intrigued by the project. He wrote his own version on spec and sent it to us. It wasn’t bad, a lot of things didn’t work — but then he had great ideas on the other side. When it was really close to shooting, like three months prior to the first day, I teamed up with Don and Christoph. We locked ourselves in a hotel suite for two and a half weeks and took elements from all the drafts and nailed them together. It was a real collaboration
iW: How is the book is different from what ended up on screen?
Hirschbiegel: I did some research on the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments, and found two or three things that I loved and wanted to get onto the screen. For instance, the scene where they use fire extinguishers to calm the prisoners during the riot is not in the novel. That, and the manipulating of the scientist, actually happened. The cat-and-mouse play is something Milgram did with his volunteers. I wanted to include that in the film, too.
I must not forget to give credit to all the actors. A third of the stuff in the film came up during the shooting, it was stuff the actors suggested, or we developed together. There are whole scenes that Christian Berkel, or Moritz, developed in the morning and then shot later. So it was very much a work in progress.
The interviews were never in the script. I started doing the interviews when I realized that it was unclear as to what the characters were really about, or what their background was. The interviews always took place after long days of shooting. I just set the actors in front of a camera. They were in character, so they had no idea what I was going to ask. I pretended to be Professor Thon before receiving a briefing from the psychologists. I tried to imagine what kinds of questions a scientist would ask. It was weird because the border between fiction and reality became very thin.
iW: Were there any other instances of this slippery slope between the film and reality? It was a movie set, but it looked like a prison, and you were confined to the space for a month or so. Did it take its toll on anyone?
Hirschbiegel: We all got along pretty well. There weren’t any great fights or quarrels. I made sure that the prison was solid and real. When the doors were locked, they were really locked — there was no way of getting out. It was even true for the crew. When they locked the big fence in the back we were locked in, too.
iW: You’re a tough director!
Hirschbiegel: Well, you have to be as a director. Nice and tough. The rooms had very intense energy. Sometimes it was positive, sometimes it was negative. In this case it was very intense energy, because the set was the former basement of a factory. The walls and ceilings were solid concrete, and the floor was made of steel plates. A lot of people who came down to visit and watch just couldn’t stand it for more than a half hour. They had to go back up to see the sunlight. We had gotten used to it, so to us it was more of a normal thing.
iW: I read that you have background in visual art. How do you think that influenced the look of “Das Experiment”?
Hirschbiegel: Before I start to shoot a film, it’s hard to get any information out of me, such as how the visual style will turn out. It’s rather a feeling I have in my belly, and the more I get into the process of shooting, the clearer that feeling becomes.
I told my production designer, “I don’t want this to be a chic movie set. I want this to be a realistic as possible, so think about how a group of scientists would set up a prison. Don’t exaggerate, and make it within a reasonable budget.”
iW: Overall, do you think there are other films or directors that directly influenced “Das Experiment”?
Hirschbiegel: I think my biggest influences were Japanese directors such as Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano. They stick to their story, and never use spectacular tricks or cliche elements to get things moving. That is something that has impressed me for as long as I can remember.
In general, it’s the three American directors: Hitchcock, Hawks, and Huston, because they were straightforward storytellers. From them I learned the most.