Das Interviews:
Star Moritz Bleibtreu and Director Oliver Hirschbiegel
talk about their new film, Das Experiment

Moritz Bleibtreu in Das Experiment

Moritz Bleibtreu is screened
for Das Experiment.

Germany, 2001. Rated R. 113 minutes.

Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Berkel, Justus Von Dohnànyi, Maren Eggert, Oliver Stokowski, Wotan Wilke Möring, Edgar Selge, Andrea Sawatzki, Timo Dierkes, Nicki Von Tempelhoff, Antoine Monot Jr, Jacek Klimontko
Writers: Mario Giordano (also novel Black Box), Don Bohlinger, Christoph Darnstädt, Oliver Hirschbiegel (uncredited), Friedrich Wildfeuer (uncredited)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Interviews by Carlo Cavagna.


I n just a few millennia, humanity has gone from living in caves and hunting animals with makeshift spears to splitting the atom and exploring deep space. But has humanity itself changed? Take maximum security prisons, for example--dens of violence and abuse. Of course, these are institutions that attract hardened criminals and authority hungry disciplinarians. What can they tell us of the basic nature of the average guy?

This is the fascinating question posed in the new German film by director Oliver Hirschbiegel, Das Experiment. A couple dozen ordinary men are recruited to play the roles of inmates and guards in a make-believe prison for two weeks. Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu of Run Lola Run) catches wind of the experiment and becomes convinced that it will make a great news story. As one of the prisoners, he defies the rules and provokes Berus (Justus Von Dohnànyi) and the other guards. The wall between play-acting and reality crumbles, and the experiment escalates beyond the control of the scientists.

Das Experiment posits a thin line between civilization and savagery, arguing that men have not evolved beyond their aggressive, destructive impulses. Inspired by the real life Stanford Prison Experiments of the 1970s and based on the novel Black Box by Mario Giordano, Das Experiment is a psychic explosion of a movie--a film as difficult to watch as to stop watching.

On Wednesday, August 28th, Bleibtreu and Hirschbiegel each sat down with AboutFilm's Carlo Cavagna in Los Angeles for one-on-one interviews to discuss their new film. Speaking almost perfect English, they touched on a variety of topics, speaking about what attracted them to the script and the philosophical underpinnings of the story, and disagreeing about whether one can read a commentary on the rise of Nazism into the film.

Read Carlo's full-length review.

Moritz Bleibtreu Moritz Bleibtreu

AboutFilm: Welcome. Do you know the U.S. well? Is this your first time in Los Angeles?

Bleibtreu: Thank you. No, this is not my first time in L.A. This is--I don't know; I haven't counted. I think this is my fifth or sixth time. I did parts of my acting studies in New York City.

AboutFilm: Where in New York?

Bleibtreu: I did them privately. I worked [odd jobs] at The Actors Studio and took some classes at the HB Studio, but I was always trying to find teachers. I believe that you can only learn from people that you like and that you look up to. I don't believe in acting being a craft that everybody can learn from everybody, like, you know, cooking.

AboutFilm: It takes talent.

Bleibtreu: Yeah, and it takes also a personal relationship between two people. Otherwise, I think it's not going to work. So I tried to find private teachers that I can relate to.

AboutFilm: Did you have bad experiences in large classroom settings?

Bleibtreu: Not particularly. I just had this one experience I remember. I went to the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute--by this time I was 19 years old. They have this full time program that costs, I don't know, fourteen hundred dollars a month. I said, "How am I ever supposed to be able to pay this? There's no way for me," and then I said, "Listen, can I observe the class just once?" And they said, "No!"…"What do you mean, no? I can't pay fourteen hundred dollars not knowing what to expect." That was the first day. They said, "Okay, go in that room and Lee is going to talk to you." I'll never forget that. "Lee is going to talk to me? I thought Lee is dead." So then they put me in this room. There was a VCR and a TV in the room and they put a VCR tape inside, and then on the screen came Lee Strasberg. He says, "Dear future student, I'd like to address these words to you." I said, "Wow, this is kind of strange." So I said, no.

AboutFilm: Too strange for you?

Bleibtreu: Yeah, that was too strange for me. So I tried to find people that I respect as actors. And then I just went up to them and said, "Listen, are you giving classes?"

AboutFilm: For example?

Bleibtreu: For example, people like, ah…who did I ask? I think I asked Burt Young once, but he didn't want to do it. And other actors that were not so known. And I found someone. One of the teachers I worked with for a long time, her name was Susan Benson. She's also a member of the Actors Studio, and I did a lot of private classes with her.

AboutFilm: You're well known in Germany, but American audiences haven't known you as well, or at least not until Run Lola Run. What has the success of that movie here meant for your career?

Bleibtreu: It's so strange because I always kept just hearing about the success in the United States, but I could never believe. I was like, [dismissively] "Yeah, it's a success," but I couldn't believe. So I went over here and I saw it, and that was of course fascinating for me. I mean, it hasn't done anything for me except the fact that people here now somehow are interested in who I am. But, for me, the thing that is so beautiful is that we intended this movie to be a small, independent feature for some crazy people who might want to watch it, and it turned out to be this huge world box office hit.

AboutFilm: It exploded.

Bleibtreu: Absolutely. It's just fascinating. And now, I've got representation here in the United States, and let's see. Maybe there will be some strange European part for me to play, which would be great, which I would love to do, because Hollywood is the place where the best people in the world get together and do movies.

AboutFilm: Well, certainly your English is good enough to play in movies here.

Bleibtreu: Yes, but still-- I believe that, especially when it comes to parts that I could be playing--I'm young, so it's usually the leading parts.… Cinema has a lot to do with identification, and even if my English is good, I will never feel like an American. So I think the parts that I could be playing will always be parts that either are not American or the character--it's just not important where they're from. I will never play the big Brad Pitt parts. That's fine with me. A dream for me would be, I don't know, every couple of months, to come over here and play a nice decent part, and have fun with it. But I know that the center of my career will always be Germany, because I believe that mother tongue is a very important thing for an actor. So Germany is always going to be my center, but if anybody in this country would like to work with me, I would be there if it's a good part and a good script.

AboutFilm: So, Das Experiment--why this particular script?

Bleibtreu: When I said that I wanted to do the movie, Oliver had just sent me the novel. I just read the back cover and said, "I want to do it." I was sure that this was going to be a great script and a great story to tell. This is one of those parts where it's not so much the part that I thought was interesting, it's more the story itself. It's just one of those stories that I think needs to be told. It's a story about human nature--a very universal thing, and an important issue in this world and in the life of everybody. If people would take more responsibilities for their own actions, I think this whole world would look different. So I just thought that this is a story that needs to be told. That's also one of the reasons for the success of the movie, it's such a universal story.

AboutFilm: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Bleibtreu: Well, what I really hope is that, well… If I speak to people, most people come up to me and they say, "Listen, toward the end, I had the feeling I just wanted to scream, 'Kill the guy! Kill the guy! Kill the guy!'" That, of course, is something that we intended, but what we hope is that if you get this feeling of saying, 'Kill the guy,' then I hope that something is going to snap your brain [snaps fingers], and you're going to say, "Wait a second, but... if that guy had been the guardian, and the other guy had been the prisoner, I would be yelling at the other one now." This is the thing that we intended in this movie. We wanted people to understand that it's not about these people. It's about the roles that you put them in, and it's about how these roles create their own energy, and an energy that cannot be stopped at a certain point. We wanted to get people very emotional, but then hopefully make them think about what happens. If you get aggressions towards the guardians, this is exactly what's not good. What would be good is to understand that this is a man-made conflict.

AboutFilm: So, you could have switched the people around, or taken a completely different group of people, and in your view, the outcome would have been the same.

Bleibtreu: Of course. If you have somebody like Tarek in this group-- and that's a very important point that a lot of people keep forgetting. This gets out of control because this guy deliberately pushes this situation. He does things in order to get this whole thing out of control.

AboutFilm: In order to get a good story.

Bleibtreu: Absolutely. Maybe if Tarek would have not done it, and he had been just like everybody else, easy and trying to get these two weeks over, then nothing would have happened. On the other hand, in every school class there is one guy that cannot keep his mouth shut, and that's Tarek.

AboutFilm: Group dynamics can cast somebody in that role even though that person might not be there at first.

Bleibtreu: Absolutely. In this kind of situation, maybe if you don't have a guy like Tarek, it would have not gotten as far, but still... some conflicts are not avoidable. Some bullshit is going to happen in a situation like this, because if you put a person that never had any power in his life--maybe not even the power to control his own life--if you put him in a situation where he has power for the first time, it's just a question of time when he's going to start to misuse this power. That's plain logic. It's sure that some bullshit is going to happen, if you play these games. That's also why I think that doing those kinds of experiments in real life is something that is just not necessary.

AboutFilm: Of course, this is based on a real experiment.

Bleibtreu: Yes, although we have always to underline that what we do in this movie has nothing to do with the Stanford Prison Experiment. The idea is the same, but the way we've been playing around with the story has nothing to do with the real events of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But, if you want to get information about the Stanford Prison Experiment, you can do that on the internet. You will see that stuff did not go as far as in our movie, but yet... people did not have a nice time in this original experiment. A lot of bad things happened there, too.

AboutFilm: This is a bit of a delicate topic, but, in the movie, one of the prisoners finally accuses Berus of being a Nazi. Does it bother you that, this being a German film, foreign audiences may see Nazism as a subtext of this movie? Do you think that gets in the way of the film, do you think that enhances the film--how do you see it?

Bleibtreu: From my point of view, I'm very happy about that. It's think it's great, especially that this movie comes particularly out of Germany. It might make people understand that people in Germany evolved enough after those terrible events fifty years ago to be able to think about this, and also to be able to tell a story. I think that, as we are a completely different country now, people also learned a lot from what happened fifty years ago. It is something that influences all our lives in Germany. It's something that is like a big weight that we carry on our shoulders everywhere we go in the world. So I think the only way to deal with it is to deal with it. And to make movies about it and let the world know that we--my generation of people--know that what happened back then is the most horrible nightmare that could ever happen to mankind. So I think it's good that particularly this movie comes out of Germany.

AboutFilm: Do you think that this topic has not been dealt with enough in the past in Germany?

Bleibtreu: Let's say not that it has not been dealt with enough--it has not been dealt with right, I think. This is the biggest problem. What happened in the generation of our moms and dads is a big denial of what happened, because people still had something to do with it. They were still directly connected to it, because their parents and grandparents were still some Nazi guys. So, what first happened was denial. And now my generation of people, the younger people, they have a different approach to it. I think the approach now is much more intelligent, because we are not just trying to deny it. We are saying, "Yes, this is something that infects our life, and we need to do something about it, and we need to show the world that we are a different country now, that has reflected, and has also learned something from these incredible, horrible events." That's why I think these kind of movies help a lot. They help a lot in dealing with this bad history. We need to make the world understand that the people living now in Germany, my generation of people, has nothing with this stuff anymore. We are different now.

AboutFilm: Obviously the movie suggests that we are all not too removed from our savage, animal selves. Is this something that you've felt in your life at any time? And if so, in what way?

Bleibtreu: For me… I just think about jealousy. Just think about you having a girlfriend and another guy comes in and touches her, or even looks at her. It makes you sometimes be like an animal. It can be such a small thing that can make this animal, as you say, come out of you. So, yeah, I think in everyday situations people become crazy. Driving a car in Los Angeles, you find people that literally would kill somebody over a stop sign. So, it's just something that's deep inside our nature. Everybody wants to live, and everybody wants to survive. And you wanna keep your stuff! If anybody wants to take your stuff away or threatens your life, you want to defend yourself. And, if necessary, you're going to become an animal. If necessary, you might even be ready to kill…

I don't know how I would react. This is one of those questions that is always being asked. How would you react, if in real life you were in this kind of situation? I always answer, "I don't know." People are very quick with the answer and say, "Oh, this could never happen to me! I would stay human, and I would never do this kind of stuff!" I think it's very arrogant and dumb. I always say, "You're the first one to react like that." Because you don't know. If somebody puts a gun to your head, you don't know what you're going to do. You just don't know. There are certain situations in life that you will never know what you are going to do unless and until you are in that situation.

AboutFilm: What was the most difficult thing about this role?

Bleibtreu: Well, the most difficult thing, I think, was the development--to have a character that, in fact, does very bad things in the beginning, but yet not…transporting the feeling of a bad guy. We wanted to start with a guy that's of course not the hero. You know how it is, sometimes you have to be very careful with what the character has to do in order to make him believable, not a hero, but yet not the crazy devil, or the guy that nobody likes. So I think the biggest work was to find a good development. When does the bell start ringing in Tarek's head, and when is he going to understand that what he did was just going too far? A lot of times in movies you have a guy who's a certain way, and something happens, and the next morning he wakes up and he's a different person. We tried to create a development that's very slight and subtle, so you don't have this hard break, and to give the audience the possibility to go through this movie with him, and work as a mirror for the emotions that the audience goes through. That was, I think, the most difficult thing.

Oliver Hirschbiegel Oliver Hirschbiegel

AboutFilm: Let's begin at the beginning. Why make this particular story into a movie?

Hirschbiegel: Well, I read the novel--it was given to me to read--I was asked whether I'd like to turn it into a movie. I had read a lot of scripts that I did not really like, and this one was like… [snaps fingers]. It's like a Shakespearean play, in a way, and it has believable characters in a believable situation, even though it's all a setup. That was a very fascinating thing. I was actually looking for something to collaborate on with Moritz [Bleibtreu], and I knew immediately that this would be it. So I sent it to him.

AboutFilm: He says he had only to read the back cover of the novel to know that he wanted to do it.

Hirschbiegel: [laughs] Yeah, but he read the whole novel, too. I know that, because I asked him questions.

AboutFilm: You quizzed him.

Hirschbiegel: [laughs] Yes, I quizzed him! No, it was fun, because I knew I wanted to do this, and two days later I got this phone call, and he told me, "Right. You are right. We do this."

AboutFilm: How did you cast the movie, apart from Moritz?

Hirschbiegel: It was very important for me not to put any other star or known face in the film. I wanted unknown actors. Most of them come from the theater, or have just started, or came from film school or something like that. It took quite awhile until we had a set of, let's say, twenty-five actors for all these parts. Then we did a couple casting sessions in groups.

AboutFilm: Like in the movie? You divided up and tested the actors like they divide up the participants in the experiment?

Hirschbiegel: Right. Of course, I gave them parts to prepare, but then, after they had done that, we switched parts. I had everyone playing everything, just to see how these groups were together. I think we did three sessions, and then I had my cast--which actually is pretty fast. The most difficult thing is, like in a war movie, you have just guys and they're all basically wearing the same thing. In a war movie they wear uniforms and helmets, so you have to be sure that the faces are as different and recognizable as possible. The same challenge here. We have two groups and they each wear the same outfits, so that was a big concern. Then, of course, you have to find not just different faces, but people who are good actors, too.

AboutFilm: The movie suggests that we are not too far removed from our savage, our animal, our darker selves. What keeps us from total anarchy?

Hirschbiegel: Well, it's certain rules and values we are trained to follow, for a couple of hundred years now. The newest sociological research shows us that it's basically just rules. It's laws and rules and certain values that we are taught over and over again by the church, by our parents, by schools, that we go by. That basically is it. What it shows is--this research--that we are basically the same kind of human beings we probably used to be five thousand years ago, which is rather shocking, I think.

AboutFilm: Do you think that such an experiment would have spun out of control with any group of men, or is there something about this particular situation that was unusual?

Hirschbiegel: I did a lot of research, and it showed me that what you see in that is basically what happens in any prison situation, in the States, China, Russia, or Germany. The rules and the system seem to be the same all over the world. I think it would have happened kind of like this in any country, with any group imaginable.

AboutFilm: As you must be aware, this being a German film, foreign audiences, at least here in the United States, may perceive a subtext of Nazism in the movie. One of the characters actually accuses Berus of being one. Do you think that gets in the way of a broader, more universal interpretation of the film, or do you that enhances the movie--or is it something you intended all along?

Hirschbiegel: As a Germany storyteller or German filmmaker, of course there is this awareness and that responsibility that our history gives us. Then again, this whole thing is not about concentration camps; it's not about fascism; it's about prisons, basically, as I just said. I think it can help to understand how these barbaric things could happen--how this barbaric system, the Third Reich, got people to behave in this way. But it's not really reflecting on fascism and Nazi Germany. That guy calling the other one a Nazi might be a bit strange or unusual here, but in Germany, it's a common thing to tell a cop, for instance. "You Nazi!"

AboutFilm: Why is Dr. Grimm the first to realize that things are going too far, while Dr. Thon wants to keep pushing?

Hirschbiegel: Well, I think he realizes too that something is going on there, and he's betting on it. He wants to push things further, while she realizes that, as a scientist, she has a responsibility, and has to stop it. But then again, they are human beings. I think in general it's naïve to think that science and thinking and intellectual work is not influenced by emotions and by the individual working on a certain subject. Of course they want to have a career. Of course they are as vain as anyone else, and of course they can get carried away in what they do. I think there is good reason for finding means to control what happens in science.

AboutFilm: Tarek become the catalyst on the prisoners' side because he wants to push the experiment to get a good story. Why does Berus become the catalyst on the guards' side? What is it about his person, his background--the story has him as a member of an airline's ground crew. Why him?

Hirschbiegel: Well, Berus as a character was in the novel, and we made him a ground crew operator because our feeling about that person was that he was limited his whole life long, still living with his mother--you always create these images, you know--never ever getting a chance in life to show what he can really do. Always being repressed in a way, and finally made it to an airline, but then, you know, it's the shittiest job you can have in an airline--being ground crew.

AboutFilm: You always have to be polite to the most horrible people.

Hirschbiegel: Yes. People are nasty and yell at you because they didn't catch a flight, or the planes are overbooked. But still, he could wear a uniform, right? So a rather calm, friendly character who for the first time in his life gets a chance to rule, to do something, to act! That's what drives this man. The more he realizes how well this works, the better he gets. I think that is a universal law. Power creates power. Success creates success. And vice versa. These are strange mechanisms at work. That's how this guy gets to where he ends up.

AboutFilm: What about Dora? How would you describe her role in the film? With this being a virtually all male cast, she almost seems to represent all women.

Hirschbiegel: Not just all women, but for me, she, in that situation they have together, is rather an example of a model for a completely different way of communication among human beings, which would be listening. Silence. Sensing things. Feeling an energy. Reading between the lines. All that. Which does not happen in the prison, obviously. Which does not happen often in everyday life, like with your boss, in your job and all that. I think the audience needed an element like that--to breathe through, to forget the prison, to relax for a moment and then get back into that tense situation. The same happens for Tarek. That's something I learned doing research--that prisoners entering these terrible situations, even torture, created a certain image for themselves to get away from that. Something to hold onto, often a former love, or the children they have, or something like that. That's how we put Dora in.

AboutFilm: You made a choice not to include too much background information in this movie. You just inserted the characters immediately. Can you talk about that decision?

Hirschbiegel: Especially in the beginning we tried a lot with introducing Berus, for instance, and the Steinhoff character, but very quickly we saw this was really about a mix of men, average guys being in that situation. I decided to keep it in that situation, and use the situation to tell more about the characters, and leave it with their acting, and through action and talking, showing us what kind of characters they were. Otherwise, I think, there would have been the danger of becoming too educational, and I do not like those movies.

AboutFilm: It seems not including too much exposition emphasizes their universal qualities as human beings.

Hirschbiegel: Yeah. It's not really a German story at all. The characters are universal. But then the tiny little bits, the way they act in certain situations--that's German again. There are these tiny little differences.

AboutFilm: Can you give an example?

Hirschbiegel: Well, the Germans are rather an earnest people. They do not talk so much, and when they talk they do not use their hands like Italians do [waves hands around]. And the Americans in comparison, they are very polite people. They are very careful, whenever they brush someone or touch someone, they go, "Excuse me, and pardon me." Things like that. A German would never do that. These tiny little things in human behavior make differences in people. So in that I think it is a German movie. Because there's a great potential for aggression, too, in Germans.

AboutFilm: You said that Fight Club was an inspiration for this movie. How does that come out in this film?

Hirschbiegel: David Fincher is a great director, visually as well as when it comes to dealing with the actors. What I love so much about Fight Club is that he never ever denounces his characters the way he shows them. They do the most silly things, and he gets it across in a believable way, and you follow the characters. That was a brave task, and he mastered it brilliantly. That was something I went by. That could have easily happened in my film, too--to denounce the characters, especially the guards. I tried to not comment, and just tell the story straightforwardly without any tricks and without using speculative elements.

AboutFilm: Do you fear that your film might be as misunderstood as Fight Club was in many quarters?

Hirschbiegel: Well, I feared that, I must say, I feared that when we had the first screenings in the States, but to my amazement it didn't happen. The people responded to this film the same way they responded in Germany. And Fight Club did very well in Germany, you know. I think the acceptance was higher in Germany than it was here. So I've got high hopes for here.

AboutFilm: So, bottom line: what do you hope audiences will take away from your movie?

Hirschbiegel: That's always hard to tell, because as a filmmaker I do not plan on getting any message across or something like that. I'm a storyteller. That's my attitude. I'm a storyteller. I want to entertain people. The thing I can say is that it would be great if people learned that one basic thing--that no matter in what weird situation they are, they'll never be not responsible for what they do--no matter whether they're working for an institution that tells them to do certain things, or in an army, or whatever. It's always you, as the individual, that is responsible for your actions. It sounds simple, but it's very true.


Berkel keeps Bleibtreu quiet in Das Experiment
Christian Berkel keeps Moritz
Bleibtreu quiet in Das Experiment.



Interview © August 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Samuel Goldwyn Films. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about Das Experiment on the boards
  Official U.S. Das Experiment site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page
  The Stanford Prison Experiments