Movie Reviews 268 – Das Experiment (2001)

Das ExperimentMind control experiments are always fun.  Whether it be Pavlovian reprogrammed instincts or submission to a group mentality, the end result, while scientifically valid, are never pretty. The subcategory of peer pressure and group conformance has been tackled before in various forms of media: as teleplays (The Twilight Zone episode The Monsters on Maple Street, the ABC afterschool special The Wave); short stories (Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery); novels (Aldous Huxley’s 1984); and, sadly in real-life, with Nazism as standout example in recent history.

The phenomenon proved interesting enough that researchers at Stanford University decided to document the effects using live human test subjects in an experiment they performed in 1971. In that famous experiment a number of students were paid to undergo testing in which the would be equally divided into the roles of guards and prisoners for a period between one and two weeks during which the prisoners would be subjected to mock incarceration conditions but as closely mimicked to real life as possible. From the outset the guards were instructed not to inflict any actual pain, but to otherwise treat the others as actual prisoners. Surprising even the research lead himself, both sides soon adopted their assigned roles to the point that both physical and psychological abuses began to take place. The experiment was aborted on the sixth day when a research assistant objected to escalating debasement and pointing out how the lead himself became complicit in the ever escalating brutality against the prisoners. The German film Das Experiment (The Experiment) is loosely based on the Stanford experiment.

Former newspaper reporter Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu) works as a cabbie when he stumbles upon an ad seeking volunteers for a psychology experiment. Before signing up he stops to meet up with his former editor and begs forgiveness for some past indiscretion, promising to infiltrate the experiment which he is convinced is some military funded endeavor and which promises will result a juicy story.

After rounding up a bunch of volunteers from all walks of life, the dehumanization begins as soon as the experiment commences. Imperceptibly at first, as both sides are jokingly playing their assigned roles, the dividing line begins to part when the guards force one of the prisoners to drink his lunch milk when he is clearly lactose intolerant. Tarek takes that opportunity to challenge the guards authority by drinking the milf himself. It’s a small act whose consequences quickly grow, when one guards, Berus (Justus von Dohnányi) begins to assert control over both the prisoners and his fellow custodians. Soon the researchers who are watching events unfold over video cameras lose control over the guards and when they finally try to intervene they become captive along with the prisoners.

This dramatization of course raises the bar on violence to a point far beyond mere disturbing. The social psychology exhibited by both sides is fascinating and there are interesting  secondary characters on both sides. The prisoners have one particular silent mate who, like Tarek clearly has an ulterior motive for joining, but the reasons why many of the other volunteered is explored. Even Berus on the guards side begins as an outcast and it is interesting to see him rise to power bit by bit.  As he relishes his newfound power he soon asserts his power over the guards as much as over the prisoners. In the end, the escalation goes far beyond the confines of the prison.

The recipe is somewhat marred by the inclusion of an external third ingredient, a love interest (Maren Eggert) who Tarek met the only the very night before his participation in the experiment began. Basking after that one night stand she incredulously manages to figure out where he is and tries to intervene. This plotline proves to be an unnecessary distraction to the events going on in the prison itself.

Overall I rate the movie a big Ja, but the love interest angle gets a Nein, Danke.

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