What is the goal of this German production? Why this infusion of German talent? What do they want to accomplish with this Hollywood film? "To give the American audience what they want," said The Thirteenth Floor's director, Josef Rusnak, when I spoke with him at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. Josef Rusnak has the soft eyes of a boy, and speaks fluent English, but with those drawn-out "ah" and "vah" sounds the Germans can't help but produce. "I wanted to give them [the American public] something they are comfortable with; I wanted to give them not the spooky atmosphere, but something they can relate to. This is what the film is supposed to do."
The Thirteenth Floor is based on science fiction novel Simulacron 3, written in 1963 by Daniel Galouye, which involves a computer program invented by a corporation. The program creates an artificial world where marketing strategies and political campaigns can be tested before they hit the market. Things become problematic when one of the artificial humans realizes they are not human at all, but a program in a simulated world. This sounds like a great movie. However, Rusnak was certain this--a great story--is not what the American public wants, so he made some dramatic changes.
The new story Rusnak cooked up is about a $2 billion corporation running tests on a virtual video game that allows a person to travel to different periods in history and play out their fantasies. Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl, perhaps the most famous German actor alive) designed the program, owns the company, and enjoys traveling back to 1937 to sleep with a beautiful young woman in a glamorous hotel, all of which he created. One night he is stabbed to death in an alley, and the primary suspect is Fuller's protégé (Craig Bierko). The police suspect he killed the old man because he was about to pull the plug on the project.
Soon a femme fatale (Gretchen Mol) enters the plot, claiming to be the daughter of the dead boss. The primary suspect falls in love with this mysterious lass, but when he learns she is not really Fuller's daughter, his investigation into her true identity leads him to discover that the world he lives in is not what it seems. Unable to accept this grim truth, our hero falls into deep depression. Not to worry, folks, there is a happy ending--remember, the Germans know exactly what the American public wants!
"Why did I pick the '30s [as the alternate world in this film]?" Rusnak queried. "Because the '30s is still something the American audience has a positive reminiscence about." (Unlike the '60s, I gather.) "It is vibrant and full of energy. The end of the '30s was the most colorful. You find every style. You find the art deco, you find the Bauhaus, you find the music: Glenn Miller is about to get started, you have the Charleston, you have everything. So again, I wanted to give the American audience a feeling like, 'Yes, I want to be there,' you know? At the same time I wanted to show the '90s style, the alienation of those people living on the Internet. I wanted to show something they [the Americans] are very familiar with."
Technically the movie is impressive, with a Bernard Herrmann-like score and some of the most amazing shots of downtown L.A. I have ever seen. One can't help but admire the Germans for their professionalism, their know-how, their focus. Indeed, this is what impressed lead actor Craig Bierko the most about his movie. He enthused: "These are master filmmakers, and I'm not just saying this. They pay such close attention to detail. I thought, given what they had to work with money-wise [$18 million] and time-wise [32 days], it's mind-blowing what they came up with." Despite all of this German ingenuity, huge mistakes were made; mistakes that ultimately cost the film, and left the man sitting behind me at the screening snoring through a good 30 minutes of the movie.
To begin with, Rusnak is wrong to think Americans recall the '30s in such a positive light--maybe the '20s, but not the '30s. This was a time of extreme pessimism. These were the years after the crash of the stock market, the Dust Bowl years. No, the '30s were not the best of times. A bigger error is to release this film so soon after The Matrix. Thematically the films are too close, and this again can be blamed on Rusnak.
If he had stuck with the original plot of the book, the idea of a corporation running a big computer program to test advertising strategies, this would have been brilliant. It would have given the film new territory, with plenty of distance from eXistenZ (about virtual reality in a computer game) and The Matrix (about virtual reality run by intelligent computers).
"Look, you can't do a movie in America without illusions," said Rusnak when I perfunctorily asked if his movie is an allegory about the "grand illusion" that is Hollywood. "For instance, our ending [to the film] when you have Rita Hayworth standing there" (actually it's Gretchen Mol, who is no Rita Hayworth) "and she looks at you, this is what you want. This is what everyone wants. I don't give a damn about the gadgets and all of those flying objects without any propulsion. We really thought about it: what you want to have is an ending with a gorgeous woman looking at you."