Hometown: Hanover, Germany. Currently lives in Berlin.
Why He's On Our Radar: American audiences are largely unfamiliar with director/writer Dennis Gansel, but he got our attention back in 2005 with his award-winning German-language WWII drama "Before the Fall." Now he has two films in US release: The vampire horror "We Are the Night" and "The Wave," a thought-provoking thriller about a high school history teacher who demonstrates to his class what life is like under a dictatorship. Both hit Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater on May 27th. You can also watch "We Are the Night" on IFC On Demand. "The Wave" hits their VOD platform on June 8th.
More About Him: Gansel studied at the Munich Film School, where he shot the shorts "The Wrong Trip" and "Living Dead." Both won the F. W. Murnau Short Film Prize. His first project out of school was the TV movie "The Phantom," a political thriller about the Red Army Faction. In 2001 he debuted his first theatrical release, the teen sex comedy "Girls On Top," which was a breakout commercial success in Germany. His next film, "Before the Fall," about an elite Nazi boarding academy, went on to win a slew of awards including the audience award at the Hamptons Film Festival. "The Wave" hit Germany and Austria in 2008 following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. "We Are the Night" opened there last October.
What's Next: "In the Year of the Snake." "It’s my first English-language feature film," Gansel says. "It was shot in Russia. It centers on a journalist who comes to Russia and gets in between the lines of terrorism and government. It’s about state terrorism and the government who’s behind terrorist acts. It’s based on eight years of research. The film's fast paced, entertaining and very political, like the best conspiracy thrillers from the '70s. We're editing the film now."
indieWIRE Asks: You're a name director in Germany. How are you hoping American audiences will respond to your latest two projects?
Good question. I've actually been influenced more by American movies than European movies. There are some Euro filmmakers, like Luc Besson, who transitioned over the U.S. that I admire. He had a big influence on my work. But I was also influenced by directors like Peter Weir and Sydney Pollack.
It feels great to have two of my newer films hit U.S. theaters. I’m looking forward to see how people react to a European take on a very American genre like the vampire film. "The Wave," is in fact based on an experiment conducted by a real history teacher in Palo Alto, California.
For that film, why did you update the setting to present-day Germany?
My own grandfather was first a student, then a teacher, at an elite Nazi school. He was an officer during WWII. He was very influenced by the fascist idea. I had many fights with him when I was a younger. I was very left wing. My own father had many problems with him.
Then I started film school in the mid ‘90s. This was the first time I really wanted to understand why everybody seemed interested in fascism. I wanted to examine the psychological aspect of it. So I shot the film “Before the Fall,” in which a young guy enters an elite school. It’s based on a true story and on the stories my grandfather told me. I wanted the audience to feel how seductive the system was.
After I finished this movie, I turned back to the question: What about now? What about my generation? I think it can happen anywhere if you have a charismatic leader, a charismatic teacher.
What made you switch gears and tackle a vampire horror?
It was a childhood dream of mine. I wrote the original script back in 1996. This was actually the second movie I wanted to make. It was a very strong love story centered on a female vampire and a young man who fall in love. The pitch was "It’s Titanic with vampires." We tried to finance it for at least 12 years. It was so hard because everybody told me in Germany, “Nobody wants to see this. Mixing a love story with a vampire genre film is total bullshit.” I immediately started to make it after the success of “The Wave.” We had hoped it would be ready in time for summer 2007, two years before the “Twilight” movies hit.
"The Wave" and "We Are the Night" feature many of the same cast members. Do you like that sense of familiarity on set?
Yes, absolutely. It’s the same with the team. If possible, I like to get the same director of photography, production designer and editor. Actor-wise it depends. Max Riemelt [starred in "Before the Fall," "The Wave" and "We Are the Night"] will appear in my next film. He’s like my mascot. He’s also a great actor and he has a great future ahead. It’s fun working with the same team.