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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