German director Dennis Gansel has covered a lot of ground in the 11 years since he completed his first feature, The Phantom. He jumped right from directing the teen sex comedy Girls On Top—the breakout commercial success of which helped put Gansel on the map—to the historical drama Before the Fall, about an elite Nazi-run boarding school.

Gansel’s next film, The Wave, is based on a real-life experiment in which a history teacher’s plan to explain to his students how totalitarian governments work by creating a Fascism-based Role Playing Game in the high school turns violent when the students get bit too into the experiment. He followed The Wave—which debuted at Sundance in 2008 and was critical and commercial success all across Europe—with We Are the Night, about a group of female vampires who take advantage of their immortality to live it up on the Berlin nightclub scene (“We can eat, drink, snort coke and screw around all we want, and never get fat, hooked, or knocked up,” as one vampire puts it). And even though the recently-turned Lena falls for a human, don’t mistake We Are the Night for Twilight; Gansel’s film focuses on Lena’s transition from human to vampire, with all the blood, sex and violence that implies.

Gansel took the time to chat with MovieMaker about which genres he’d still like to explore, his upcoming film In the Year of the Dog, and his opinion of all those teen vampire flicks out there today (hint: He doesn’t like them). The Wave and We Are the Night are being released in the United States by IFC Entertainment, with VOD releases to follow. For more information visit and

Rebecca Pahle (MM): Your films have covered a lot of different genres, including teen sex comedy (Girls on Top), historical drama (Before the Fall) and horror (We Are the Night). Is there one genre you prefer, or one you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to?

Dennis Gansel (DG): Yeah, I’d like to do a love story. That’s why I started being a filmmaker, because I wanted to tell a personal [story]. I would also love to do a twisted intelligent thriller. Something that’s a real mindfuck, like The Usual Suspects or Memento. I’m working on a great idea based on a weird German technology which was invented by the Third Reich for time traveling.

MM: The last few years have seen a surge in the popularity of vampire-based entertainment, but you started working on We Are the Night well before things like Twilight or “The Vampire Diaries” came onto the scene. What’s your opinion on all the teen-oriented vampire stories out there now?

DG: I hate those teen vampire films. They revived the genre but also kind of ruined it, in a way. I tried so hard to make [We Are the Night] for years as a cool love story full of action and heart, and [these other vampires films] came with vampires glistening in the sunlight. What a shame. 

MM: Was The Wave always going to take place in a modern-day German city? Are there any major differences between the movie as you originally conceived of it and the finished film?

DG: Yes, the setting was always a German city. The idea for Before the Fall (Napola), the movie I did before The Wave, came from my grandfather, who was a student, and later a teacher, at an elite Nazi school. I loved him, but we had a lot of fights because he wanted us to understand why he was so excited about the idea of fascism (after the war, he became an officer in the West German army). I learned that he originally wanted to be an artist–an architect–but there was no money in the family. The Nazis gave him a new idea, something to believe in (ironically he had three sons, all of whom became architects!). So I wanted to make a movie where the audience could emotionally understand how the system worked, how seductive the idea of fascism is. It is very easy to read a history book and believe that one would’ve been part of the resistance. But it was not only pressure [from the government] back in those days. They got your balls because they used very clever psychology, and that hadn’t been in a German movie before. But it is important; the system changed, but the methods are still the same!

After I made Before the Fall I asked myself: What about us? What about my generation? Would it work again? Today? In Germany? Here, the Nazi era is the most talked-about subject, and everybody says “That will never work again.”

This question was very interesting for me. 

Ron Jones (the teacher who originally conducted the experiment [featured in The Wave] in 1967) once said that it’s not about politics. It’s about psychology; therefore, it can happen anywhere. Anytime. New Jersey, Amsterdam, Tokyo. Wherever people live.

We made some changes in the characters and obviously in the school (American high school is very different from a German “Gymnasium”). Different style of teaching, different characters. We spent two weeks in German schools, where we talked to dozens of students. We spent a lot of time with them and also with young teachers, and after that we began to write.

After talking to psychologists–and after considering the impact of the school shootings in Germany in Erfurt, Cologne and Lower Saxony–we decided to change the ending of the film. We wanted to make a bigger impression on the audience and to end the film with a clear warning.

MM: According to IMDB, you’re now filming In the Year of the Dog. Can you tell us a little bit about that film? Do you have any other projects in the works?

DG: In the Year of the Dog is about a journalist who comes to Moscow. He just wants to have a good time, but he soon realizes that he is in the middle of a society that deals with a lot of terrorism. It’s a political thriller in the vein of Hollywood movies from the 1970s, and it deals with state-sponsored terrorism and how regimes use terrorism to change politics. It’s a very scary, dark and exciting subject. The film is fictional, but we based it on research we did over the last nine years. I never understood why there are so few films about terrorism. It changed our world fundamentally, and it is very important to make movies that entertain but also tell the audience something about the world we live in. I love movies, but some of them, like Three Days of the Condor, Platoon and Silkwood, changed the way I think and feel. I think there is a great tradition [with this type of film,] and we should try to revive it.

The film will be ready by the end of this year, and it’s my first English-language feature.