Once Oliver Hirschbiegel had read through the novel by Moritz Bleibtreu in single night, he knew immediately that he'd found the material for his first feature film: "It was exactly what I'd been waiting for: An incredibly suspenseful story, very believably set in Germany. You wouldn't have to cheat, to act as if it were somewhere else. The strength of the book is its characterization. All the characters in the film have already been sketched out in the novel. "
Everyone who read the novel was immediately convinced that it had magnificent potential, Moritz Bleibtreu among them. Long before the first draft of the screenplay was complete, he agreed to take on the role of Tarek: "I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of this: The film centers on the most important questions of how people live together, how people deal with authority and to what extent anyone takes responsibility for their own actions. These are precisely the mechanisms that lead to war. Besides, Oliver and I had known each other quite a while and we'd always planned to do something together. "
Once Moritz Bleibtreu, a well-known star, was on board, the project moved along quickly and relatively easily. Financial backing flowed from the North Rhine Westphalian Film Foundation and the FFA even before the final draft of the screenplay was written. Selling the rights to his book to Typhoon, a production company in Hürth that later won Munich-based Fanes Film as a production partner, Mario Giordano negotiated a clause that would allow him to write the screenplay himself. Taking the complex structure and the complicated make-up of the characters into consideration, Don Bohlinger, an American screenwriting consultant, was brought in for the later phases of the development of the screenplay. Bohlinger had already had good experiences working with Hirschbiegel on TODFEINDE (1998) (Mortal Friends). At the same time, and out of sheer passion for the story, Christoph Darnstädt was working on his own initiative on another version.
In July, Hirschbiegel, Darnstädt and Bohlinger locked themselves up in a hotel suite in Cologne in order to sort out the strengths of the various individual versions and to work out a single, homogeneous final draft: "It was the best work on a screenplay I was ever a part of," Hirschbiegel remembers. "We sat together like a sort of think tank for 15 hours a day, every day. Bohlinger was responsible for structure, Darnstädt kept an eye on the characters and I was the apostle for the experiment and believability. "
Hirschbiegel decided early on that, with the exception of his central hero, he wanted to cast unknown faces in all the other roles to ensure that the audience would relate equally to all the characters: "I wanted each figure to be slowly revealed, stripped, skinned before the eyes of the audience. Well-known faces simply stand in the way of that. "
In constant contact with An Dorthe Braker, whom Hirschbiegel calls "the best casting agent in the country," he put together an ensemble of actors who came from all over Germany for this unusual project. But since casting was not to be conducted on the basis of individual performances, but rather, on how the actors would perform together, Hirschbiegel had actors audition in large groups of up to ten at a time and encouraged them to exchange roles as well: "The secret of filmmaking is to always stay flexible and open to new ideas and proposals. " So, for example, Christian Berkel, who was originally slated for the role of Kamps, ended up being cast as Steinhoff and Oliver Stokowksi, who was to play Bosch, wound up with the role of Schütte. One role in particular was very important: that of Dora, the only character to live outside of the prison, out there in the real world, and what's more, the female counterpoint to all this raw manhood: "The focus is on a deep sense of humanity and emotions," confirms Maren Eggert, who readily accepted when she was offered a role in the project. "The other parts of the story are about feelings as well, but this is something tender, a bit lighter, something to offer balance to the story. I was really very excited about this script because I think it's very unusual for a German film and because Dora also plays a very special role in it. "
Hirschbiegel's fine sense for oscillating moods among the actors on the set lent considerably to the success in the telling of this complicated story and to the seamless interaction of all its various parts. Another factor is the fact that a lot of what an audience sees up on the screen now was never a part of the screenplay. Many of the best scenes were created as a "work in progress" right there on the set, developed from the improvised dialogue with the actors and members of the team. Just one example would be the scene in which the ice breaks between Tarek and Steinhoff, when the two of them laugh for the first time after Tarek's panic attack and, after such a long period of enmity, become friends.
The fact that the story is based on a book presented a certain responsibility for Hirschbiegel: "It was important for me not to betray it, to use it merely as a vehicle in order to tell an exciting story. " In his preparations, he went back again and again to behavioral reports and videos and took themes which were not part of Giordano's novel. The guards using fire extinguishers to put down the prisoners' revolt is one such example. Hirschbiegel also questioned psychologists and psychiatrists about what happens to people on the edge and about claustrophobia: "Everything that happens in the film was to be believable, possible, thinkable. "
The visual concept for the film flowed from the spontaneous exchange of ideas with the cameraman and the set designers. Hirschbiegel decided early on that he wanted to work not with film lighting but with the available light on the set of the mock prison that was built in the cellar of a Cologne cable factory. Rainer Klausmann, the cameraman with whom Hirschbiegel had been working continuously since Trickster developed the lighting concept: Yellow key lights as dampened night lighting from the ceiling and almost painfully bright neon lights reflecting off the white walls for the day lighting. The construction of the mock prison was based on the first draft Hirschbiegel had drawn according to the descriptions of it in the novel. Here, his beginnings as a graphic artist came in handy. Even as a child, he regularly drew storyboards for stories: "Uli Hanisch had the brilliant idea of setting up this long fake hall around the waiting room. So we felt our way long it, bit by bit. " While he'd often worked with his cameraman, Hirschbiegel was working with Uli Hanisch for the first time: "I just wanted a young and fresh set designer who didn't have too many films below his belt yet had enough experience to take on a really large set. He'd just put a super set behind him with Tykwer's Krieger und die Kaiserin, Der (2000) (The Warrior And The Princess) He's very analytical and brings in an ability to see things from a cool distance, which was perfect for the creation of this set. It was his idea to separate it; he wanted to build the main stage and proposed that Andrea Kessler oversee the other locations, and it worked out beautifully. She works very much according to her intuition and with atmospheres. "
Once the exteriors had been shot in the streets of Cologne as well as the scenes in Tarek's apartment and Ziegler's editorial office, the team moved to the underground set Uli Hanish had created in the former rooms of a cable factory. For all the actors and the members of the team, the shoot there was an extraordinary physical and psychological ordeal: "Moritz, naturally, had quite a load to carry since his character, unlike the others, isn't playing it straight, that is, as someone who comes directly from their private life into this artificial, simulated situation. He acts as if that's what he's doing, but in reality, he's a journalist researching a story. In the beginning, he's not even very likable. "
It was clear from the beginning that at least the scenes in the mock prison would be shot in chronological order, even if only for the sake of the continuity of the growth of the men's beards: "I was also banking, of course, on the effect of this hermetic situation," Hirschbiegel admits. "If you only see bars 12 or 14 hours a day and no daylight, a certain fascinating dynamic develops. The intensity you see in the film was also palpable on the shoot. " The actors, too, can confirm that the shoot was anything but a normal one. Christian Berkel, for example, found it difficult to play Steinhoff for the first 14 days as a character who is very present yet hardly speaks a word: "It was, in every respect, an extraordinary experience. If you're down there in the cellar all day long and can't see any daylight, you very quickly lose all sense of time. Plus, we all had on these smocks, and of course, no watches. And then you're always with his huge group of people. Normally, you're with two or three people at a time on a shoot. They leave and others come and everyone's there for a few days at a time. On our shoot, everyone really was there all the time. We all just assumed that after 14 days at the latest, tremendous tensions would be building up. The fact that that didn't happen is a tribute to Oliver who kept calm and collected and treated everyone equally. If you've got a director who's moody or impulsive or enjoys playing people against each other, things can get pretty hot and bothered very fast!" Nonetheless, Hirschbiegel will quietly admit that he did help form certain constellations of sympathies and antipathies for the good of the film.
What became clear early on in the shoot was that the lines between the actors and their roles grew quite thin: "Sometimes it was truly disturbing," Hirschbiegel remembers, "because we realized that the distribution of the roles that determined the story and the project was having an effect on the actual reality of the shoot. I mean the guards and the prisoners really were two separate factions who would not only compete against each other but would also actually eat lunch together!"
When, at times, Hirschbiegel would work a 13 or 14-hour day on video sequences and would ask the guards and prisoners about certain events, he always had the impression that the answers he received were derived in equal parts from the actors and the roles they played: "I would be sitting there, as it were, in the position of Professor Thon, asking them how they felt about this or that situation. When I realized that it was next to impossible to tell who it was that was answering me, it was really quite shocking. " Christian Berkel confirms the phenomenon: "During the first of these interviews, I was as worked up as I ever had been in my life. This interrogation was really uncomfortable for me personally. The second time, when I was already familiar with the situation, it wasn't so bad. " At the same time, Hirschbiegel, too, was slipping from the role of director into that of the project director: "Sometimes I simply quite roughly assigned tasks and then watched to see what would happen. We might really only need three minutes, but I'd let the scene run on without them knowing what was going on. I'd just tell a guard via a walkie talkie, 'Go in there and have them do sit-ups!' or 'Call them to order!' It was pretty funny to sit there at the monitor and watch them carrying through. You sit there, guiding the camera this way and that, and you realize that they're getting nervous. They don't know what's going on, just that they're on camera. I found it pretty disturbing as well because I realized how easy it would be to look at these guinea pigs in their cage and to say, 'a little bit more, a little bit more. ' That disturbed me, but at the same time, reassured me that the story really is believable. " There are only about three minutes of this material in the film, more scenes can be viewed on the Internet at www. dasexperiment. de .
Again and again, the erasing of the lines between fiction and reality penetrated the very lives of the filmmakers themselves. Hirschbiegel was surprised to see that the punishment the guards dreamed up at his request was often far more severe and gruesome than what had originally been planned in the screenplay: "Lars Gärtner, who plays Renzel, said, for example, 'I'm going to go in there and tell 53 that his son is deathly ill in the hospital. ' I mean, it's just unbelievable what's let loose in such a situation!"
Like most of the participants in this project, Christian Berkel was able to imagine, at least before the shooting began, taking part in such an experiment: "I was naive enough, like most of us, probably, to think that if an experiment like that is being led by psychologists, there's a certain security factor involved. Which, of course, isn't true at all. "
After almost 30 days of shooting in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the mock prison, the team moved to Zandvoort in Holland film, where the scenes in Dora's father's villa were shot, and completed shooting the film.
Interview with Oliver Hirschbiegel:
After a long series of television films, EXPERIMENT, the (2001) is your first feature film. Was this a big change for you in terms of your working methods?
"The advantage with television is that you're all but guaranteed to reach at least two to three million people, which isn't all that usual when it comes to the cinema. Other than that, working on a feature film takes longer because everyone approaches the work with more respect -- which I'm not so wild about. I'm pretty impatient and I like to work fast. The 35mm camera is bulkier than a Super 16 and harder to move. In general, the set up and all the efforts associated with it are bigger. You can't just spontaneously shoot from the hip. "
What was it about the book that sparked your interest?
"Every good story tells us something about people. In all my films, it's been important that, in the development of the characters, people go through learning processes and apply what they've learned and that they're in a situation that forces them to take a stand. This is required of many of the figures in the novel. Also, it was very important to me that it would be an exciting story that takes place in Germany with German characters who don't have to act as if it were France or America or England. "
It's pretty rare in Germany to see a film like yours that tells a consistently exciting story developed on the characters and a sense of place. Why is that, do you think?
"Storytelling is simply not one of the Germans' great strengths. We're a land of poets and thinkers. Except for Fassbinder, my mentors are not German directors, but rather, the Americans -- Huston, Hawks, Hitchcock, Wilder. Whenever I'm unsure of what to do, I ask myself: What would old Hawks have done?"
Would you ever take part in an experiment like this?
"Not since I've made the film! Before the film though, absolutely. I'm extremely interested in the line between fantasy and reality. Everyone knows how it is: When little boys play cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, it becomes real very quickly. You'll find this especially among grown men!"
Your work centers again and again on the point at which the hero has to decide whether or not he'll take responsibility for his actions…
"I think that's purely coincidence. I'm simply interested in telling stories in such a way that the audience has no way out. Suspenseful stories in which people go through a certain development. Storytelling is the oldest craft known to humankind, going back thousands of years to the days when they still sat around campfires. "
The figure of Professor Thon definitely has characteristics of the wild scientist who loses all sense of his limits in the heat of research.
"I don't find it all that wild or strange. It's in the nature of research to take risks. If it were always so easy to say, "Stop," then 90 percent of the catastrophes in history would never have happened. An end can be brought to every situation if reason is the determining factor, but in all of human history, there are very few examples of this happening. Instead, egocentrism, a loss of the sense of reality, feelings of duty or religious zealotry usually win out. When you lead an expedition and fight your way through the ice for four straight weeks, you don't stop just before you reach your goal. If you want to find something out, you go on. I don't think it's crazy. Just human. "
You introduced the camera that Tarek takes into the prison. It wasn't in Mario Giordano's book…
"I'd read an article about these cameras that were hidden in eyeglasses. They're used in surgery and espionage. That's what gave me this idea that it'd be a wonderful tool for Tarek to work with. The problem I had was that he didn't have a tool, not even a pen to work with, so we built that into the screenplay. "
This use of video material is very popular at the moment in films. ..
"In times of increasing uncertainty, images are simply a way of capturing something or even oneself in order to help explain the monstrosities of the world. When you film something, you create a certain sense of order. "
Doesn't the camera itself sometimes create uncertainties, as in Antonioni's 'Blow Up', for example?
"It's difficult to draw the line. If a journalist sees a soldier get shot through the lens of a camera, he won't do anything because he's looking through the viewfinder and not with his own eyes. He's filming what's going on. But if he doesn't have a camera, he'll go over and yell out, "Stop! Stop!" For Tarek, the moment comes when the courage is called for when everything -- partly because of his own doing -- gets out of hand. He goes over to Schütte, puts the glasses away and talks to him, encourages him. "
Did Moritz Bleibtreu always video Tarek's images himself?
"Yes, and he also has a credit as a video camera operator. The camera really is the way you see it in the film, though we set a camera with a somewhat higher resolution into the framework for the eyeglasses. "
What does the camera mean to you as a director?
"For me, it's a means to an end. A lot of directors are very technically oriented and work a lot with special effects. I prefer the work with the actors and thinks it's more important, too. "
Were you worried about working with such a large ensemble of relatively equally important actors at the same time?
"Sure, I was working on the screenplay up to the day before we started shooting, and so, didn't have much time to prepare for the shoot. Suddenly, you're like this Centurian standing in front of his troops one morning."
Do you see a relationship to the television project 'Big Brother'?
"Sure. In both cases, there are observation cameras, but the comparison doesn't hold up much beyond that. With Big Brother, the people walk into this container and direct themselves; they simulate reality. Everyone acts as if it were real, but in truth, it's less real than a well-told story. In our case, these are perfectly normal people who very consciously say, "I'm now playing the role of a guard. " There isn't much room for playing anything above and beyond that. As a prisoner, you definitely think twice before opening your mouth and risking 20 sit-ups. Such situations don't come about in Big Brother. Besides, I don't even want to know what it'd look like if our experiment were to go on for 100 days instead of just five. "
Why did you make the film so serious after all and escalate to murder?
"We simply thought through to the end of the spiral of violence. People do kill each other for a wide variety of reasons, out of jealousy, for example. A decision is made in a moment as to whether or not someone dies. The consequences of having people flip and slowly lose their grip on reality can be shown in a wonderfully exemplary way by these means."
The line between the game and fiction is a theme in the film; in what ways did it affect the shoot?
"As the director, you're always the captain. When you've got 20 men in a room like that, the captain pretty quickly takes over from the director, almost to the point of being a sort of general. And when you realize that you've come into a situation like that as a director, when you're sitting there in front of a monitor, watching your actors almost as you would guinea pigs, it's pretty scary. "
During the shoot, you listened a lot to the soundtrack for Fight Club (1999). How much of an inspiration was that for the film?
"In retrospect, the film was very much an influence because it takes men seriously as men and never ridicules them for their sheer ridiculousness. Usually you expect men to be strong and upright. But there's usually no place for something like a hard killer who's also a tender lover. In Fight Club (1999), as in my film, there's a greater variety in the characters of the men. "
One might get the idea that the only reason you filmed in Cologne was the sponsorship?
"No, for me, Cologne is a very believable setting for an experiment like that. It's just right that it takes place in North Rhine Westphalia. In the book, it was Düsseldorf, which I don't think is quite as sexy a motif as Cologne. Cologne is a warm, comfortable city, and you can just imagine that, with a dash of naiveté, something like that would be taking place there in some cellar. It'd be more believable than Munich or Hamburg, which would have given it a completely different color. And Berlin is just too hard and cold. "
For whom do you make films?
"For as many people as possible and for as many different age groups as possible. The challenge I love taking on is to tell universal stories so universally that they're understood all around the globe. In the age of mass media, it's all about reaching as many people as possible and moving them. And I think that this film has a truth to it young people are yearning for these days. Our social lives in western cultures are becoming more and more complex and complicated, and all the technological progress is happening at the cost of fundamental, idealistic values. This is what gives young people, who have always been smarter than the rest of the population, an intuitive desire for truth and reality. Our film is not a speculative show based on effects. It's a real story! I'm also not interested in merely arousing controversy, but rather, in real conversation. For me, what I do has nothing to do with art. I'm not an artist anymore. I'm a storyteller!"