Director Dennis Gansel discusses The Wave and We Are The Night

German director Dennis Gansel discusses his movies The Wave and We Are The Night, which are now available to American audiences for the first time on VOD

Director Dennis Gansel is a name most American audiences aren't familiar with, although I believe they really should be. The filmmaker made his feature debut with Girls on Top in 2001, which he followed up with the critically acclaimed Before the Fall. His two latest films, The Wave and We Are the Night, are now available in America for the first time through IFC Films' video-on-demand platform, with We Are the Night already available and The Wave hitting VOD on June 8. Both films are truly remarkable and, despite the German language and settings, have undeniable appeal to Americans.

The Wave is based off the infamous 1967 high school experiment by teacher Ron Jones in Palo Alto, California, which started after a student inquired about the Nazi regime during World War II. The teacher enlisted a series of extreme disciplinary measures, which the students surprisingly reacted positively too, although the experiment rapidly spiraled out of control. His group, entitled The Third Wave, shunned those against the group, even resorting to violence before the experiment was halted after five days. The Wave takes the same basic principles used in the experiment and sets the story in present-day Germany, with a rebellious teacher, played by the incredible Jürgen Vogel, whose experiment goes wildly out of control in truly fascinating ways.

We Are the Night is a vampire movie that brings the genre back to its bloodsucking roots, without all the glitter. The story follows a young delinquent girl named Lena (Karoline Herfurth), who is drifting through her life, trying to make ends meet by pickpocketing strangers. She meets an exotic woman named Louise (Nina Hoss), who happens to be a vampire and, literally, turns Lena to the dark side. After transforming into a vampire, Lena falls in with Louise and her fellow vampires, the brooding Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich) and happy-go-lucky Nora (Anna Fischer), who seem to live an opulent life of luxury. Lena soon realizes that this new life isn't quite as glamorous as it first seemed.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with director Dennis Gansel over the phone about these wonderful movies. Here's what he had to say below.

I really enjoyed both of these films. It's great that American audiences are finally going to get a chance to see them.

Dennis Gansel: Thank you very much. It's fantastic. It was great news when I learned that IFC was finally taking them out.

When I first read about The Wave, I immediately remembered the Palo Alto story, which had been in the back of my memory for so long. I heard about the story in college, and it was great to see this made into a movie. Even though the experiment took place in America, I think the story works so much better in contemporary Germany. Were you ever thinking about setting this in America at all?

Dennis Gansel: No, not at all. It's funny, because it's based on a novel (written by Todd Glasser, which is based on the Palo Alto experiment), which is mandatory to read in German high schools. Everybody knows the story pretty well. The original idea came after I made Before the Fall, which was a movie about a young boy joining an elite Nazi academy during World War II. It was made from the memories of my grandfather, who was a student and later on a teacher at NAPOLA, which they called National Political Academy. We had a lot of fights when I was 2 or 13 years old, because I never understood why he was so supportive of the Nazi government and why he was such a fan. After telling all his stories, that he wanted to become an artist and there was no money in the family, so he joined NAPOLA, I finally began to understand that it was all based on psychology and seduction. I started to make that movie to make it understandable, on an emotional level for the audience, how the system worked. After that, I asked myself, 'What about my generation? Would it work again? Could this happen again?' Especially in Germany, where we learn so much about World War II and Hitler and the Nazi era. I remembered The Wave and I called the original teacher, Ron Jones, and he said, 'You know, it's not about politics and it's not about setting, if it's in California or Bavaria. It's about psychology.' The psychology I used in The Wave is so strong and so universal, that it could work anywhere. It doesn't matter. This was the initial moment for us, to really go into research, to go into German high schools to talk with teachers and students, and come up with the idea to make The Wave in contemporary Germany.

When I started watching it too, I started remembering another one of my favorite German movies, Das Experiment, which is also based on an American story and a fantastic German movie. It's really interesting that these American stories are translated so well into these German films.

Dennis Gansel: Yes, Das Experiment is fantastic. I think they made another movie, also called The Experiment. I haven't gotten the chance to see it yet, but I'm really curious about it. There is a great cast, with Adrien Brody, and it totally makes sense because it's an American story about a famous experiment. I'm looking forward to an American version of The Wave. It would be a lot of fun.

I really enjoyed how, in the beginning of the experiment in The Wave, Hitler is brought up, but only momentarily, although it is a pivotal scene. You see the kids' disdain for talking about Hitler and, yet, they get sucked into this whole thing. Is that attitude universal amongst German kids, how they feel about Hitler?

Dennis Gansel: Exactly. We did four weeks of research. My co-writer, Peter Thorwarth, and myself, we went to four high schools in the north and south of Germany and we did about 50 interviews. We spent a lot of time with the students and hung out with them, going to the cinema, et cetera. A lot of the dialogue, I would say 60 or 70 percent, we had written down while visiting the high schools. The Wave is a German high school right now. It's how they talk and how they behave.

I also read that some of the more challenging scenes to shoot were actually the water polo scenes. Did you ever think about maybe switching to a different sport?

Dennis Gansel: (Laughs) Yeah, maybe, but every sport is really hard to shoot. In Before the Fall, I shot a lot of boxing scenes, which is much easier because there are only two characters. Water polo, it's an interesting sport and it's very popular in Germany, and you also don't see it in movies too often. Football (soccer) is very popular in Germany and you see it in practically every German movie. We thought about something more visual, and I like water.

The whole cast is phenomenal, but I was really blown away by Jürgen Vogel's performance. Can you talk a bit about casting him, and how the rest of the cast came together around him?

Dennis Gansel: Actually, it was after meeting Ron Jones, the actual teacher, because Ron Jones was a member of a punk band, and he lived in a treehouse in Palo Alto back in '67. He reminded me, from the first meeting, that he's like Jürgen. I have worked with Jürgen before. My first film was a political thriller starring Jürgen. I pitched him the story and he said, 'Of course. I want to do it.' I didn't even give him the screenplay. He said, 'Just pitch me the story.' We very much created the character together, the t-shirt of the punk band, he's living in a boathouse, his wife is also a teacher and pregnant. It's pretty much like the life of Ron Jones at the end of the 60s.

That's awesome. You go from The Wave to this fantastic vampire movie in We Are the Night. I read it was an idea you originally had about 14 years ago. Can you talk about why you felt the time was right to make this after The Wave?

Dennis Gansel: I wrote the first draft of the script in 1997 and, actually, it was very much a love story. It turned around into an action-driven story about a teenage vampire who was falling in love with a young guy, whose parents were actually killed by the female vampire gang she was a member of. It was so hard to get financing. We tried it in 2000 and 2004, and I had all the cast in 2006. Everybody said, 'No, we won't do it.' I said, 'Look, there's a new book coming out in the U.S. and it's called Twilight. It's not really my kind of genre, but it's vampires with a love story. Let's do it now.' I prepared the movie, but the whole financial issue was too hard for us. So, ultimately, we did The Wave, which turned out to be a huge hit in Germany and all over Europe. After it hit, finally, we got the money for We Are the Night. The problem was, of course, that We Are the Night opened right after the third installment of the Twilight series. It was pretty tough at the box office, but now it's making its money on DVD. The box office for We Are the Night, in Germany, wasn't that good. After 14 years, there was a bitter taste left, but it was definitely worth making. A lot of genre movies were invented in Europe, like Metropolis and Nosferatu. We have such a great tradition of genre movies in Germany that everybody in Germany, especially in the younger generation of directors, wants to make them, but the financiers always say 'Do comedies,' because the only one who is making money is Til Schweiger, which is true. We want to elevate it a little bit and do different kinds of films.

I read that you reworked the script a bit after Twilight came out. Do you think that franchise's success helped steer you in the right direction for this, or would you still have preferred your original version?

Dennis Gansel: It's hard to say. It's a question for me in five years. Twilight is not only a movie, but it's a trend and I think it saved the genre in a way, but it also destroyed the genre in a way. Those movies are a huge hit and a huge moneymaker, but, personally, I don't like them. I liked the idea to combine a vampire and a love story. My pitch was always Titanic with vampires. For me, it's too much teenage stuff, too sweet, and not enough action. It works for the audience, but it's not my sort of taste. It's really hard to make a decision right now, if it was right or wrong. It was definitely right to make this movie right now, to innovate something which is going on in Germany. I think the future generation of directors will have a hard time to get financing for these sorts of things. I have read very interesting zombie scripts from German filmmakers, a very interesting vampire script from a friend of mine, and I cross my fingers they will get financing, but I think they will have a tough time.

It was also cool watching both The Wave and We Are the Night, back-to-back, to see Max Riemelt and Jennifer Ulrich in both these films, in very different roles. They have been in your other movies before as well. Are they both your constants for most of your movies?

Dennis Gansel: Yeah, definitely, especially Max. I have done five feature films, and he has starred in all of them. The new one, which takes place in Russia, he plays a Russian guy. The younger actors have so much talent in Germany, it's just fun to work with them, over and over again. Karoline (Herfurth), who is the female lead in We Are the Night, I worked with her when she was 16, and she will be 27 this year and we're still making movies together. It's fun.

Is there anything you can say about your Russian movie, In the Year of the Dog? I see you also have Moritz Bleibtreu from Das Experiment in that project. Is there anything you can say about the story?

Dennis Gansel: Yeah. It's about terrorism. It's starring Moritz Bleibtreu as a journalist who comes to Moscow, who wants to have fun and enjoy his life in Moscow. He's working for a magazine, but he's confronting terrorism in Russia and he's caught between terrorists and the government. Actually, it's about state terrorism and how the government uses terrorism to influence politics. Yeah, that's what it's about. It's a classic political thriller, very entertaining, very much in the same vein as 1970s Hollywood political thriller. I wrote the original draft more than 10 years ago, and it also took me a long time to do it because, thrillers, they have a big tradition in Germany, but, same with other genres, it's tough to get the money. Terrorism changed the world we are living in right now, so fundamentally, I was really wondering, for the last 10 years, where are all the movies about terrorism? I don't need any more movies about Iraq or Afghanistan, I really want a big movie like Three Days of the Condor and all this great stuff from the 70s, which really reflect how the CIA and Watergate changed the American society. I always wondered, where are these movies right now? Politics can still be very entertaining, and this is my try to make such a movie.

Excellent. Just to wrap up, what would you really like American audiences to take away from The Wave and We Are the Night? How do you think Americans will perceive these fantastic movies?

Dennis Gansel: For me, it's fantastic that we finally have the chance to present these two movies to the American audience. I hope they will enjoy it. I think the European cinema is very different from America, but we made it as entertaining as we could. If you are wondering what's going on in Germany or Berlin right now, combined with these entertaining genres, you have to take a look, and you will be surprised.

Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Dennis. Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed both movies. They were fantastic.

Dennis Gansel: Thank you very much.

You can watch both of Dennis Gansel's wonderful movies The Wave and We Are the Night on IFC video on demand right now.