Review by Paul Stathakis | 2002

An experiment gone terribly wrong

In any moment of deci­sion the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is noth­ing.” — Theodore Roosevelt

”Das Exper­i­ment”, the lat­est import from Ger­many, exam­ines human behav­ior from a pecu­liar and fright­en­ing per­spec­tive. It high­lights the effects that pow­er can have on a reg­u­lar being and rapid­ly sub­mits its first cheer­ful nature to an unbal­anced envi­ron­ment. This decent into a dark­er, more mys­te­ri­ous, and pro­found milieu hap­pens gradually.

Tarek Fahd (Mor­tiz Bleib­treu) is a small-time taxi dri­ver. At first, that is all we learn about him. While dri­ving, he unex­pect­ed­ly col­lides with anoth­er car. No one is hurt. The dri­ver of the oth­er vehi­cle is an attrac­tive woman named Dora (Maren Eggert). The two sud­den­ly become inti­mate. But then we also learn that a team of researchers, wish­ing to con­duct a spe­cial two-week exper­i­ment, is seek­ing can­di­dates and promis­ing to pay each vol­un­teer 4000 marks. Fahd sees the offer as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to score some mon­ey and maybe pay­off a small debt. So, he accepts the offer and decides to explore the world of exper­i­men­ta­tion, with­out noti­fy­ing Dora.

20 vol­un­teers, all male, are select­ed. Tarek is one. 8 are select­ed to occu­py the roles of pen­i­ten­tiary guards while the oth­er 12 are giv­en spe­cif­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers and assigned to jail cells as pris­on­ers. The exper­i­ment sounds sim­ple: the guards must act as real guards and the pris­on­ers must obey their orders, as would real-life con­victs. If any­one should fail to com­ply with wish­es, they are told that they will be severe­ly pun­ished. But the pun­ish­ments can’t be that bad. The guards are pro­hib­it­ed to use any means of vio­lence against the inmates. Vio­lence is for­bid­den. If any guard should resort to aggres­sion, he will be auto­mat­i­cal­ly elim­i­nat­ed from the test. And the researchers are seri­ous. They are on guard 24/7. So, what is the only pos­si­ble solu­tion in case things get out of hand? The answer is humiliation.

The script builds ani­mos­i­ty in both groups. It res­onates with anger, pres­sure, and the inevitable destruc­tion of the psy­che. The pris­on­ers want out but by the end the guards are too in. The strug­gles are clear, but the res­o­lu­tions are not, up until the end. Some­where down the road, “Das Exper­i­ment” esca­lates into a dan­ger­ous hostage-like sit­u­a­tion, where things are unpre­dictable. And as exag­ger­at­ed as the sce­nario may seem, it is based on an actu­al study con­duct­ed at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. Of course, cer­tain char­ac­ters and events were fic­tion­al­ized for the sole pur­pose of enter­tain­ing some more.

The orig­i­nal exper­i­men­t’s pur­pose was to show how the guards could become cru­el so quick­ly, in a mat­ter of two days. What is inter­est­ing about the movie though is that it makes us won­der how things would’ve turned out had 8 of the 12 pris­on­ers switched posi­tions with the guards. Would their minds also have giv­en in to the high sta­tus? Would they have been as obsessed with author­i­ty as the oth­ers were? It is an inter­est­ing thought.

”Das Exper­i­ment” is also intrigu­ing, ulti­mate­ly because it nev­er answers one ques­tion: How can such reg­u­lar peo­ple assume such roles, so quick­ly and so nat­u­ral­ly? The team in charge, capa­ble of ter­mi­nat­ing the exper­i­ment, seems like a pan­el of 3 or 4. Where is the back­up in case of emer­gen­cies? At the begin­ning of the film Tarek briefly explains to a reporter that the exper­i­ment is backed by the gov­ern­ment. This state­ment rais­es ques­tions. Why does the locale used for test­ing seem iso­lat­ed? Why aren’t any offi­cials check­ing up on the exper­i­ment and its devel­op­ment? Is this a big scan­dal or a game, like Tarek believes? We nev­er real­ly find out. But it is iron­ic to think that a gov­ern­ment-backed research this deep and impor­tant would back­fire on nation­al TV.

Based on the nov­el Black Box by Gior­dano, direc­tor Oliv­er Hirsch­biegel sup­plies the movie with an artis­tic vision. The edit­ing is so well bal­anced, the direc­tion so well pre­pared, that detail is one of the film’s per­fec­tions. Although it is calm for the most part, it nev­er ceas­es to dis­turb us. It is dark and upset­ting and even implores sym­bol­ic col­ors such as red and green. It even uses image to raise a lit­tle ter­ror. And it con­tains what seems like a direct nod to Kubrick­’s A Clock­work Orange, when Tarek is strapped to a chair and forced to watch a mon­tage of bizarre, some­times inex­plic­a­ble, images. It is part of a set of psy­cho­log­i­cal tests. Nice touch.

The first time I saw actor Mor­tiz Bleib­treu was in the hit film Run Lola Run. He played Man­ny, a nerve-rack­ing man des­per­ate­ly seek­ing mon­ey to repay the mob or face ugly con­se­quences if he does­n’t deliv­er the amount on time. In “Das Exper­i­ment”, Bleib­treu is placed in a trou­bled sit­u­a­tion as well, where he expe­ri­ences pres­sur­ing moments. His char­ac­ter slow­ly trans­forms as the movie pro­gress­es, but his desire to rebel against the guards and free the oth­er inmates nev­er fades away. He is filled with ener­gy and is deter­mined to go to extremes to help oth­ers. In my opin­ion, Bleib­treu is the finest actor to come out of Ger­many. I can’t think of a moment in the movie where I did­n’t feel con­fi­dent when­ev­er he’d appear. In this pic­ture, he rep­re­sents brav­ery. Great performance.

Author George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Pow­er does not cor­rupt men; but fools, if they get into a posi­tion of pow­er, cor­rupt pow­er.” In so many words, this is exact­ly what “Das Exper­i­ment” proves. It is incred­i­ble how a sto­ry this sim­ple, yet orig­i­nal, can call upon the great writ­ers and politi­cians of the decade. That is why it is pow­er­ful, because it stands for more than a mere for­eign drama.


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