The Experiment review by Matt Fuerst


In 1971 Stanford University set out to make a "Prison Experiment". They took 24 students from the general population and split them up, some students became guards, the rest became inmates. The researchers were curious what would happen if the guards were left unchecked. Being a big fan of pessimism, I could have saved them the trouble and given them a clue that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the experiment went on, and in fact, the "play" guards began to abuse the "play" inmates eventually escalating to stripping inmates, hooding them and worse. The experiment was shut down as it was getting too out of hand too quickly.

The German film Das Experiment shares more than a passing resemblance to the Stanford experiment, which is I imagine why it starts off with a disclaimer that any resemblance to real events is coincidental (yeah, right). Tarek Fahd (Run Lola Run's Moritz Bleibtreu) is a taxi driver who one day sees an ad paying 4000 marks to volunteer for an experiment. A group of scientists want to gather 20 men, divide them into guards and inmates, and simulate a prison environment. Fahd is interested, as it turns out he sees this opportunity as a way to get back into the newspaper job he ran away from in his past. He pitches the story to his old editor who offers him 10,000 marks for the story, with pictures. Fahd signs on the dotted line for the experiment and his fate is sealed.

On his way home from signing up for the experiment, Fahd is t-boned by a car at an intersection. Dora (Maren Eggert) is on the way home from her fathers funeral. She is dazed and confused and Fahd offers to take care of her for the evening. He ends up really taking care of her doing the horizontal mambo with her which makes some sort of link that Fahd will rely on as he goes into the klink.

The next day the experiment begins, 8 guards are selected, leaving 12 inmates. A set of rules are established and the day to day routine of living in captivity begins. Small cracks begin to form on the first day, and as expected the guards are initially hesitant to use any authority against the prisoners. After all, this is just "play", right (and the most important rule is that no violence is acceptable in the program). By Day #3 however, Berus, initially the outcast guard, has taken the lead role since while he was initially quiet (leading to his outcast status), he is the most morally flexible and willing to assert authority against the inmates. The experiment is accelerating quicker than the scientists thought as the guards are being aggressive and humiliating the prisoners by the second night (requiring them to sleep naked without beds in their cells). Fahd is overjoyed with his success at disrupting the tranquility of the experiment, since he plans on meeting with his editor at day #7 who will report on the horrors going on within the prison and shut it down.

Things go awry as Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi) manages to intercept the message from Fahd which further sets him over edge. Berus sees the message as a test from the scientists, to see if the guards can handle the situation. Berus attacks the scientists on the location and imprisons them, along with the guard who was helping Fahd. Along the way an inmate gets a little lippy and Berus proceeds to split his head open, killing him on the spot. The situation continues to spin out of control now with no one able to stop it. Fahd realizes that there is not going to be an easy out to the situation he got himself into.

As I alluded to, I often find myself to be a pretty pessimistic person, so I think a lot of the effect of the film was lost on me. I guess I should expand upon my pessimistic statement. I consider myself, at the same time, a pessimist and an optimist. I realize and understand the incredible lows that the human animal is able to achieve (depravation, murder, torture) along with the sheer heights of kindness people can display. You know how you talk to people and they often will say "Can you believe that person X did event Y?" My answer is always "Yes". I realize that people are capable of most anything, at this point there is no line that hasn't been crossed. Maybe once upon a time we thought we were above certain atrocities, but with the Internet some pretty serious atrocities are a mere mouse click away (hit up or to see what I mean). I think Das Experiment expects a viewer to think that people will maintain a certain level of civility towards each other during the experiment in order to work, and I don't really expect that in such an environment, especially a movie environment.

The cinematography seemed to be starkly different at two points in the film. Before Fahd enters the faux prison, the camera was pretty active and colorful in the story. Some interesting crane shots were in use and it kept things pretty lively. Once Fahd entered the prison things calmed down and honestly got a lot more boring. I realize we entered into a "sterile" environment, and director Oliver Hirschbiegel was likely trying to convey this in the static nature of his camera movements and the set dressing, but it slowed down the film too much. If the majority of the film is taking place in 2 or 3 sets with a static camera, it drags the film down. The acting was acceptable for the roles. I wasn't blown away by anyone in particular, Shutte (Oliver Stokowski) as the lonely inmate with a dream was memorable in his role.

What the hell is the deal with the Dora connection you might ask? I dropped it casually, just one line in my summary above. That's about how casually she enters the movie, yet there is this forced love affair taking place in the movie. It really seemed like an unnatural element to the overall story and completely contrived. Does every movie need a love story? I guess so, I must be a grumpy American.

Overall, Das Experiment is a real interesting idea, but I think spending 20 minutes reading in depth about the Stanford experiment would probably yield more results in far less time. If the premise sounds real interesting to you, and you don't mind the subtitles, give Das Experiment a shot, otherwise you won't be missing much if you pass it up.

5 out of 10 Jackasses
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