Das Experiment (2001)

Marco Lanzagorta

Forget about Freddy and Dr. Lecter. Das Experiment is a truly terrifying film.

Das Experiment

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Cast: Mortiz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnanyi, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski, Maren Eggert
Distributor: Columbia
Studio: Senator Films
First date: Germany, 2001
US DVD Release Date: 2003-07-01

After more than 30 years, the "Stanford Prison Experiment" continues to be the subject of heated debates among psychologists, historians, lawyers, and human rights advocates. Its results have been used to explain everything from the horrors of the Holocaust to the violence in maximum-security facilities.

In 1971, under the aegis of the Stanford University, 20 male volunteers participated in a study aimed at reconstructing the psychological conditions of prison life. Some of the subjects were assigned the roles of guards, while the rest posed as prisoners. To the surprise of the researchers in charge, in only a few days, the guards became abnormally sadistic and the prisoners sank into a terrible state of depression. As a consequence, the experiment that was scheduled to last for two weeks had to be cancelled on its sixth day.

Das Experiment is an intense German film based on the novel, Black Box by Mario Giordano, inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Das Experiment imagines beyond the actual events, elaborating on what would have happened if the researchers had completely lost control of the experiment.

As the film begins, Tarek Fahd (Mortiz Bleibtreu), a well-educated taxi driver in need of some extra cash, signs up for an experiment being conducted at a German university. The reward for two weeks' commitment is 4,000 marks (about $1,800 U.S.). He meets the researchers in charge, as well as the other, average-seeming candidates, polite and talkative.

After a series of physical and psychological tests, 12 of the volunteers, including Tarek, are randomly assigned to be prisoners (dressed in white robes and sandals), while the other eight become uniformed guards. For the first hours of the experiment, the groups are at ease with each other. They play, chat and joke together without incident. Everybody takes the experiment as a friendly game. But soon, the prisoners, led by Tarek, begin to test how much they can defy the guards' authority.

This makes the guards initially sympathetic, and they do not know how to proceed; after all, the authority provided by their uniforms is entirely fictitious. They are not real guards, and the prisoners are not criminals. However, the guards' egos are at stake, as they try to live up to the expectations engendered by their uniforms. Ultimately, they embrace their role with a tenacity that suggests they believe their performance in the experiment will redeem them of whatever problems they may have in the real world.

The conflict reaches a zenith when Tarek organizes a revolt and cages two guards. One of the remaining guards, Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), recalls reading somewhere that humiliating an individual is one way to obtain his obedience. So, they proceed to undress the prisoners and spray them with fire extinguishers, leaving them terrified in lightless cells.

When his plan works, Berus gains the guards' respect and becomes their leader. This is rather unexpected, as guards and prisoners alike used to make fun of Berus' terrible body odor. However, in Das Experiment, as in real life, leaders emerge during difficult situations. Once Berus rises, nobody dares to question him, even when, later in the film, he turns sadistic.

To underline thematic parallels between the representation of power run amok and the Holocaust, Das Experiment makes visual connections between the prisoners and the Jews, and the guards and the Nazis. For instance, Tarek is shaved by the guards, wears filthy robes, and is addressed not by name but by his prisoner number. He certainly looks more like an inmate from a concentration camp than a subject of a University experiment. On the other hand, the guards' fetishistic uniforms are reminiscent of the flamboyant SS attire. And, in one harrowing scene, the guards make a unanimous vote, raising their right hands in a gesture much like the notorious Nazi salute.

Das Experiment focuses on victims and perpetrators, but it also addresses the responsibility of observers. The researchers here appear fascinated by the cruelty and clashes among prisoners and guards, hesitant to interfere. At one point, head scientist Dr. Thon (Edgar Selge) states that Tarek and Berus are the most important subjects, and their presence is essential to the success of the experiment. The scientific ethics mentioned at the beginning of the film, aimed at protecting the human subjects, appear to vanish as the experiment progresses. What could have been considered as an obvious violation to the safety rules at the start of the experiment, it became a matter of scientific curiosity after a series of increasingly brutal confrontations. The scientists are "dehumanized" much like the guards.

The viewer is made an accomplice in the researchers' voyeurism. As horrific as its subject matter may be, Das Experiment is an incredibly -- perhaps unnervingly -- engaging film. The viewer, very much like the scientists, may condone the violence and enjoy watching the brutal confrontation between Tarek and Berus.

Still, while they may be similar, violent narratives are not received I the same ways around the world. Consider the differences in the promotion of this film in the U.S. and in Europe. One can only wonder as to why, even when it was nominated for a variety of European awards, such as the Grand Prix at the Paris Film Festival, Das Experiment has hardly been publicized in the U.S.

One reason may be that Das Experiment genuinely disturbing. Its power resides in its uncompromising presentation of cruelty as an intrinsic component of human nature. Given the right circumstances, anybody might become "evil." Quite the opposite, the American horror pantheon is populated by embodiments of "otherness," where the monster is definitively "different" from us. Forget about Freddy and Dr. Lecter. Das Experiment is a truly terrifying film.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.