Das Experiment

on September 20, 2002 by Paul Clinton
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"Das Experiment" is an often gripping dramatization of a psychological research project about the prison dynamics between guards and convicts. In a nod to Philip Zimbardo's controversial 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment conducted at the Palo Alto, Calif., university, the movie shows what happens when 20 well-adjusted male volunteers assume roles of "guards" and "prisoners" in a penitentiary environment.

Rather than Zimbardo's notes, "Das Experiment" is reportedly based on Mario Giordano's novel "Black Box," a reference to the solitary confinement container used by the guards. But as in Zimbardo's experiment--which he ended prematurely due to the disturbingly perilous results--the guards abuse their power, humiliating and maltreating the prisoners.

Mild-mannered Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu, "Run Lola Run") enters the makeshift cell as Prisoner #77 and quickly challenges the authority of the guards, who are led by the coolly sadistic Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi). As the conflict between the two sides escalates, the scientists overseeing the experiment lose control of the human lab rats. The guards embrace their power to discipline the inmates with a fascistic glee, as director Oliver Hirschbiegel turns the screws on the audience.

Hirschbiegel shows his adeptness with the material by fostering the claustrophobia of the cells: He uses grainy film stock, tight angles and a drab color palette. The three writers--Don Bohlinger, Christoph Darnstadt and Mario Giordano--don't sketch in many details from the personal lives of the men who participate in the project, undercutting the horror of their dehumanization. This story could be better told in a docudrama format a la Errol Morris, with expressive reenactments. The writers do provide some background on Tarek, whose relationship with his father is used as a foreshadowing device for his response to the bullying by the guards. We get a handful of gauzy but fairly flat flashback and fantasy scenes showing Tarek in romantic and sexual situations with his girlfriend.

The explosive finale embellishes the notorious real-life experiment to punctuate the movie with tragedy. Starring Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnanyi and Maren Eggert. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Written by Don Bohlinger, Christoph Darnstadt and Mario Giordano. Produced by Marc Conrad, Noerbert Preuss and Friedrich Wildfeuer. A Samuel Goldwyn release. Drama. German-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 113 min

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