Das Experiment (2001)

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu

Based on the Stanford Prison Experiment and the book Black Box by Mario Giordano, Das Experiment follows the events of an experiment where 19 men are divided into prisoners and guards and tasked with role playing their mock occupations for two weeks.

At first the 19 strangers joke about their roles, playing hyperbolized stereotypes of how they imagine they should act. But when each realize the repercussions of their position and power they either possess or are denied, the experiement becomes something far more dangerous.

Similar events happened in the real life Stanford Prison Experiment, which was eventually cancelled after 6 days when the guards started torturing the test prisoners. Das Experiment asks, what happens if they didn’t stop? How bad can it get?

Answer: Pretty bad.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Downfall (2004), The Invasion (2007)

Insomnia (1997)

Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg

Starring: Stellan Skarsgard

Having an obsession with film noir out of college, I immediately gravitated toward Insomina, when I heard the director’s aim was to turn the genre on its head. It was this visual style, using pervasive light in a disorienting and ubitiquitous manner, combined with the powerful performance by Stellan Skarsgard that cemented this film in my subconcious.

Being a pilot when I saw this film, I was all too familiar with the phenomena of insomnia, traveling through multiple time zones every day, never being able to convince your body and mind when night and day were falling. My travels also frequently took me to the Scandanavian countries, so I could relate to the way the constant sunlight wreaked havoc on the senses of the lead character in the film. The director magically captured this experience and combined it with a tense thriller in a completely unique way.

Unlike the remake by Christopher Nolan, the original’s protagonist is far less likable and in turn more watchable. The less sleep he gets, the deeper a hole he sinks into. Accidentally killing his partner while investigating a serial killer in the Norweigian Artic, detective Jonas Engstrom, decides to cover up his mistake by blaming the murder on the killer. But his plan quickly unravels with his psyche, the less sleep he gets, and the more crimes he commits in an attempt to assuage his ever increasing guilt.

Skarsgard’s best performance to date in my opinion, this relentlessly bright film is at the same time, one of the darkest I’ve ever seen.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Prozac Nation (2001)

Don’t get this mixed up with the American version, they’re as different as night and day…see what I did there?

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine

Awards: Academy Award (Best Picture)

As an avid Hitchcock fan, I found Rebecca an enthralling mystery film ahead of its time. Edited in camera, the film is technically sound and expertly plotted with a solid narrative and plenty of unexpected twists and turns.  This was the same studio to produce the Academy Award winning best picture of the year before, Gone with the Wind.

The story follows an unnamed common woman, companion to a rich woman in Monte Carlo. While there she meets a rich widower, Max De Winter. They fall in love, marry and return to Manderlay, Winter’s estate in England. The new wife has big shoes to fill though, trying to live up to the expectations created by the dead first wife, Rebecca, as related by the obsessive and sometimes dangerous housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Danvers tries her best to sabotage the overwhelmed young new wife, constantly reviving the memory of Rebecca to the torment of Winter. Winter’s grief leads to suspicion though, when the events surrounding his first wife’s death come into question. A multi-layered mystery unfolds with haunting conclusions.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), The 39 Steps (1935), Rear Window (1954), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946)

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

Director: L.Q. Jones

Starring: Don Johnson, Jason Robards

Awards: Won Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, nominated Nebula for Best Dramatic Writing

Summary: What does Star Trek, Miami Vice, nuclear war, and man’s best friend all have in common? Well, not much really except for a nifty little movie called A Boy and His Dog. Set in the year 2024, the world has become a desolate wasteland after World War IV. Based on the novella written by Harlan Ellison (who also wrote the Star Trek episode: City on the Edge of Forever), this movie stars a very young Don Johnson (Miami Vice) who plays a young man named Vic. In this future, people are forced to fight and scavenge for the few remaining resources such as food, weapons and yes, women! Vic has an advantage over most others through his trusty sidekick named Blood who just happens to be a dog. Even better, Vic has a telepathic bond with Blood giving the pair the ability to talk and understand each other psychically. With a keen sense of smell, Blood helps Vic avoid roving madmen and mutants and yes, even track down women!

For you see, Vic is a lonely man and lonely men have needs. As the story progresses, we learn how these needs eventually lands Vic into hot water as he crosses paths with a secret underground community who are more than they seem. Predating Mad Max and other similar films set in a post-apocalyptic future, this film is a cult classic that is fun and thought provoking. Watch for a controversial ending that had not only the often litigious Harlin Ellison upset but feminst groups as well.

Other Notable Films by this Director: The Devil’s Bedroom (1964)


Cache (2005)

Director: Michael Haneke

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil

Awards: European Film Awards: Best European Film, Director, Actor, Editor (2005)

As a lover of film scores, Cache, represented an interesting selection for me, as it has no score. Geniously shot in high-definition, the medium provides a mechanism of storytelling, as the audience is unwittingly and repeatedly placed in the POV of a stalker who leaves videotapes of his victims on their doorstep, causing thrilling and deadly results. The pace of the film never allows the viewer to feel comfortable with what they’re viewing, always second guessing whose perspective they’re viewing the world through.

The tension rises throughout the film as ghastly images and flashbacks plague the protagonist, but a strange amnesia keeps him from remembering what is linking all the things happening to him. A horrific and shocking scene at the end of the second act provides an inciteful metaphor for his hidden guilt, but never do we clearly see who the stalker is, rather like many good thrillers of the like, we are left with questions that fuel after cinema discussions. An interesting commentary on the big brother culture in which we all live. Someone can always be watching, hidden from view…

Other Notable Flms by this Director: Funny Games (1997), Funny Games (2008) – remake


Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

Director: Werner Herzog

Starring: Klaus Kinski

“People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder.”

–Werner Herzog

Aguirre: Wrath of God is one of German director, Werner Herzog’s, most critically acclaimed films following the harrowing tale a doomed band of Spanish conquistadors hunting for the lost city of El Dorado. Though written in just two day and half days by Herzog during a drunken soccer bus trip (eight of the final pages being tossed out the window when a fellow busmate vomited on them), Aguirre combines two actual historic expeditions down the Amazon by Pizarro and Ursua.

In the film, Ursua and Aguirre are dispatched on a mission down river by Pizarro to discover the fate of another conquistador, Orellana’s, mission and confirm the existence of the lost city of treasure. Accompanied by the tasty Helena Rojo, starring as Ursua’s mistress, and Cecilia Rivera as Aguirre’s ill-fated daughter, the expedition embarks on a voyage fraught with peril. Beset on by blood-thirsty Indians, oppressive heat, hunger and disease, and a river that threatens to swallow them all, the group quickly disintegrates into madness. I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but I will tell you this, there’s a shitload of monkeys.

et tu monkey?

What’s equally fascinating about this 1972 indepedent film is the backstory behind its production, specifically the relationship between director Herzog and lead actor Klaus Kinski who played the mad Aguirre. Fans of Herzog’s movies are familiar with the two’s history (see My Best Friend: Klaus Kinski), having made 5 films together including another great jungle epic, Fitzcarraldo, about a visionary if not slightly insane, explorer who lifted a steamship over a mountain. The two would routinely battle publicly on set and at one point in their collaborative careers each had a contract out on each other’s lives at the same time.

After repeatedly butting heads on how Kinski should play Aguirre, and being deliberately antagonized to the point of insanity by Herzog to bring out a believably psychotic performance on camera, Kinski lost his mind one night and shot three rounds into a rowdy nearby crew hut, blowing the finger off one crewman. Later in the production, Herzog threatened to kill Kinski if he walked off set.

Strange stories abound surrounding other aspects of the production, how the props and crew were constantly plagued by the treacherous Amazon river, how Herzog stole the 35mm camera the film was shot on, how he illegally snuck 400 monkeys through customs for the final scene. No matter how the film was made, it still stands up as a taught, visceral adventure movie that went on to inspire other great films like the Mission, Apocalypse Now, and even the Predator.

Other Notable Works by this Director: Fitzcarraldo (1982), Girzzly Man (2005), Rescue Dawn (2007)

The trailer: