Das Experiment, the feature film debut of German TV director Oliver Hirschbiegel, is cinema verite for a nation of Big Brother-devouring voyeurs. A hybrid of reality TV and thriller, it gives viewers the vicarious thrill of what it’s like to be scared straight—to go to prison.
Experiment is loosely based on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, but is recast in present-day Germany. It is a fascinating restaging, given Germany’s fraught history. The film opens with Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) as Tarek, a cabdriver, as he tears out a newspaper ad for research subjects to take part in a 12-day study for the whopping sum of 4,000 marks–about $2,000 (Stanford only paid $15/day). Tarek learns at his qualifying interview that the study is designed to observe prison behavior and that volunteers will be divided into prisoners and guards. Since the point of the actual study was to study how subjects respond to traumatic conditions, selections were made randomly.
In Experiment, at least two of the candidates are deliberately chosen – Berus, whose sadistic tendencies mark him as a guard, will act at any cost to maintain order, and Tarek, whose charisma announces him to be the least docile of the prisoners, and therefore their obvious leader (and whose philosophy degree marks him a cerebral counterpoint to flight attendant Berus). What Herr Professor Thon and his staff do not know is that Moritz is a former journalist who has sold the story to his ex-boss and that he is outfitted with the latest surveillance technology embedded in a pair of eyeglass frames so that he can transmit audio and video.
Before the simulation begins, all participants are warned that violence will not be tolerated and that the experiment will be terminated prematurely if safety is at issue. While that should act as a reassurance, the prisoners are also cautioned that their consent includes a waiver of their civil rights. One might be incredulous, even at this early juncture, that the volunteers should be so quick to assent, but it should be considered how cultural differences between Germans and Yanks might be confused for passivity. Painted with a broad bush, Germans are a patient lot, compared to their more impulsive American brethren. In the States, with our history of Kent State and Rodney King, one would imagine a quicker reaction to humiliation and brutality.
As with any film that uses an experiment as the premise, things quickly go awry. Harmony between guards and prisoners begins spiraling downward with a seemingly minor event. Prisoners are required to follow each and every command uttered by guards, including eating meals in their entirety. Schutte (Prisoner #82) is allergic to milk. When instructed to drink it down, he politely declines. When Tarek takes up his cause and drinks down the milk in one noble gulp, he is at first a hero to his fellow inmates.
Berus quickly fingers him a troublemaker, and while not violating the letter of the dictum against violence, he violates its spirit by humiliating Tarek. Tarek, however, is more than equal to the task. As played by Moritz, he is coolly reminiscent of Jude Law, with the entitlement and intensity of an intellectual who is trying to prove that he is more than just a current of abstract thoughts, that he is a natural born leader.
The film is uneven. Despite gorgeously over-saturated cinematography reflecting alienation and ennui, the plot sometimes unravels like a bad episode of Oz. As the stakes grow higher, the guards practice explicit sadism, to the point of circumventing the administrators of the experiment. There are moments that are closer to Hollywood slasher films than a smart thriller that might make for required viewing at Amnesty International. The pace can be kinetic, even frantic, or as glacial as a Tarkovsky meditation.
The real surprise during the film’s screening was the audience itself. A quiet group of NYU students responded unexpectedly to the film as they watched the prisoners attempt to take control from the guards. In an audience filled with future Masters of the Universe, adrenaline flowed and epithets were punted at the screen with vehemence and delight. They shouted at the screen, cheering as the game became a contest of lives.
– Jerry Weinstein