Dec. 18, 2010
Das Experiment (2001)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Stars: Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski

What it's about. Based on a novel by Mario Giordano, which in turn is based on the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. In need of money, reporter Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu) volunteers for a lucrative behavior experiment, run by the frequently absent Dr. Thon (Edgar Selge). His redheaded assistant is Dr. Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki).

The score or so participants are divided into guards and prisoners. The experiment is scheduled to last two weeks, but within days, the guards are already demonstrating sadistic and totalitarian tendencies. These are strongest in sinister Berus (Justus von Dohnànyi) and unfunny Elvis impersonator Eckert (Timo Dierkes). But not all the guards turn out evil; the exception is Bosch (Antoine Monot Jr.).

The prisoners are a diverse lot, and react to the growing stress in different ways. Schütte (Oliver Stokowski) becomes a nervous wreck. Tarek rebels, partly to spice up the story he has sold to the newspaper. Steinhoff (Christian Berkel) is stoic and unfriendly. But when Berus decides to take over the experiment and turn the doctors into prisoners, Steinhoff decides things have gone too far, and leads a prisoner escape with Tarek.

To further increase the growing tension, Tarek's determined new girlfriend, Dora (Maren Eggert), tries to communicate with him, unaware that the experiment has broken down into terror.

How others will see it. This movie is too intense for many viewers. Those that have the stomach for it approve of it. The user ratings are very high at 7.9/10, with a modest decline noted with increasing age (8.3 from those under 18, versus 7.8 from those over 45).

The film was not a huge box office hit, but it won a slew of European awards, and its success as a video release led to a 2010 American remake. A major movie version of the Stanford Prison Experiment is also slated for a 2011 release.

How I felt about it. Of course the actions depicted are exaggerated. It is generally not a good idea to sleep with a woman who runs a red light and smashes into your car. This woman is unlikely to locate your apartment key, move into your apartment, find your contract, and visit you at the prison. Then again, Berus is unlikely to believe that he won't be sent to a real prison for turning the professors into prisoners. How long does Eckert believe he will get away with raping Dr. Grimm? Would a prisoner be beaten to death? Could Tarek, beaten into unconsciousness, break out of the black box, even if a screwdriver is conveniently present inside? How does Berus know that Bosch has incriminating evidence from Tarek?

But for once, picking apart such a film misses the point. We know that this movie extrapolates the actual Stanford experiment to Lord of the Flies extremes. But along the way, Giordano (who also contributed to the screenplay) and director Oliver Hirschbiegel demonstrate how rapidly men become monsters, once checks against their actions have been removed. Power corrupts the guards, and a lack of power turns the prisoners into animals who concentrate on survival.

Not everyone has a monster inside of them, ready to come out when the environment permits. Bosch keeps his humanity, for example. But it is safe to say that something primal lurks within most of us, as Das Experiment asserts. Why else would so many people vote for Republicans?