Das Experiment – The Experiment (2001)

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnányi, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski, Andrea Sawatzki. Germany. 1h 49m.

A powerful fact based taut drama, stemming from the events surrounding the now, notorious Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971, Hirschbiegel encapsulates a bitter trials from behind the lens so to speak, making it very German, very bold, daring to dig deep into the torture tactics and leaves no stone unturned, in the mess of the soulless personal hardships the occurred during this tragic social experiment.

Beginning with a brief taste of life outside the lab, we’re introduced to Tarek/Prisoner No. 77 (Bleibtreu), before the trials, a journalist, topping up his coffers with some gypsy cabbing, he meets the stunning Dora (Eggert) after a bizarre car crash but before the two can really start their relationship Tarek enlists in a social experiment advertised in a local rag, armed with street determination and some nifty spy glasses, he propels himself into a hellish experiment.

Suddenly the movie is thrust into the clinical mock prison set up in the basement of a university, after handing out minimal instructions by some stern looking tutors, the carefully selected, 24 men are divided into two groups and left to act out their roles and the experiment starts the pace rolling hastily out of control as the participants work themselves and each other into a frenzy of madness that doesn’t let up.

You Are Invited To Participate

The screenplay shifts between the spy cam in Tarek’s glasses to standard filming, however this isn’t true found footage it would have been a really interesting aspect to take. Within the dark mock prison cells, harshly lit by harsh fluorescent lighting casts stark blue light on the already shaken up prisoners, it really reflects the terror in their eyes as they attempt to abide by the rules in order to get out alive and with the least punishments. The 12 men who are living their lives as prison guards are so privileged, they get to make the rules, go home at night and wear and uniform and this is what prompt them to start acting out, not as test subjects but what they perceive as prison guards and the threat of being watched without repercussions allows them carte blanche. This doesn’t gel with Tarek who is purposefully antagonizing the situation in order to get a ballsy story however he really doesn’t expect it to go to the depths of depravity which the guards are willing to take it and this clash between Tarek and Berus (von Dohnányi) who attempts to take control of both groups is pure fireworks.

Generally the experiment is one which will never be repeated due to the violence and deaths that came about from the lack on control and leadership that is needed to make the magic work, it doesn’t go as far as answering why a men go ape shit crazy when given limitless authority, but it does look into the depravity caused by such people, there’s forced eating, lots of scat, guards pissing on prisoners, sleep and sensory deprivation and other cruel punishments.

As the individual personalities start to appear in some of the characters, Tarek strikes up a couple of friendships, with steely Steinhoff (Berkel) and Schutte (Stokowski), a nervous character who joined just for the cash and soon becomes victim no1 amongst the guards s he’s an easy target. The rest of the prisoners don’t really stand out, amongst the guards the biggest characters is (Berus) who’s often picked on for his moistness and odor and another guard who doubles up as an Elvis crooner but with so much going on it’s hard to focus in on all 24 characters, but Hirschbiegel concentrates on bringing out he guttural aspects of the basement project.

When the shit hits the fan there’s an epic battle and chase, the guards really believe they have lost the keys to their kingdom and begin to turn on the tutors who organized the experiment, kidnapping and imprisoning one doctor when she attempts to stop the experiment and she gets off lightly. They even attempt to take down Tarek’s girlfriend but luckily their effect on the outside world is minimal, but the potential is incredibly scary. There’s a particularly cute artistic scene where everyone stops raging and the camera pulls back through the long tunnels under the university glancing into the exhausted faces of the survivors, it’s a sobering experience.

It’s easy to see how some uniforms and not much supervision can lead men into pure evil but watching it play out blow by blow is enthralling and repulsive, there are no awards why this story works so well with a German backdrop but for me and to date this is still one of the best adaptations of Standards experiment..

Rating – 8/10

Relate: The Experiment (2010), Die Welle – The Wave (2008), 23 (1998), Stanford Experiment (2015)
Spotlight – Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnányi


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