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Michelle Thomas

Published January 1st, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

Das Experiment Review

Classification: 18 Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel Rating: 4/5

With the theatrical success of Downfall, Metrodome Entertainment are re-releasing Oliver Hirschbiegel’s debut, the psychological prison thriller. Based directly on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, Das Experiment is the story of Tarek (Bleibtreu), a journalist-turned-cabdriver, who goes undercover to take part in a 14-day experiment in a simulated prison.

His fellow guinea pigs are a mixed bunch, mostly financially motivated, mostly blue collar, but include an Elvis impersonator, an airline employee, a teacher, and a junior executive. They are, for the most part, a jovial bunch. They are interviewed by the team running the experiment and randomly divided into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’. The guards are given uniforms, night sticks, whistles. The treatment of the prisoners is immediately designed to dehumanize them – they are stripped, deloused, and dressed in sacks, with flipflops on their feet, and no underwear – but, initially, the guards are polite and the atmosphere remains easy.

The first sign that things are changing comes at breakfast on the second day. One of the prisoners refuses to drink his milk; this is against the rules. Tarek defiantly drinks the milk, announcing ‘one nil to the prisoners’. Boundaries are drawn, and by that evening the prisoners are in a full blown riot, egged on by Tarek who deliberately escalates the tension in order to make for a better story. The academic observers are thrilled, and even more pleased when the guards, taking advice from Berus (von Dohnanyi), a quiet member of their group, turn out the lights and turn on the fire hoses. Only one of the academics, Dr Grimm (Sawatzki), seems to realize that things are getting out of control, and when the guards crack open a bottle of whiskey ‘just to warm up’, things go very wrong indeed…

Das Experiment is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of film-making. Director Hirschbiegel clearly likes claustrophobic situations and even before we get into the prison the film is framed and shot from extreme angles, highlighting a sense of unease that soon becomes all pervasive. It’s also now more topical than ever with the daily stories of torture in Abu Graib and Guantanamo, though some have called into question the science behind the original experiment. As at Standford, the academics cease to be neutral observers and seem to forget that the men whose lives they are playing with are still human beings with rights (though they have waived them).

Moritz Bleibtreu (Manny from Run Lola Run) turns in a supremely confident performance as Tarek, often in over his head but never panicking, and the rest of the cast – many only identified by number or as Mr Prison Guard – all do fine work, shocking in their transformation from easy-going civilian to brutal guard or cowed prisoner.

Because the film is based on a true story, it’s easy to buy into the drama, and in the cinema to be swept along; watching it at home, on dvd, I was more cynical and aware of plot holes. Who is running this experiment (rumours say that the military are behind it)? If its taking place in a hospital, or a university, where are the regular security staff? Would only one person really be left on duty? The Stanford experiment was terminated after only six days, as prisoners were becoming depressed and traumatized by the experience. In the film, for dramatic effect, the experiment continues until the guards are completely out of control. None of the guards really seems to question what they’re doing, and when they turn on the academic staff it seems a step too far.

The other aspect of the film which I had mixed feelings about it Tarek’s relationship with Dora. On the eve of the experiment he crashes into her car, takes her home, cleans up her injuries. They connect, sleep together. All through the experiment Tarek thinks of her when things are going badly, and the film often cuts to her. This is a welcome respite for the audience from the increasingly horrid conditions in the prison but also something of a distraction and slightly unbelievable.

DVD Extras: Trailer


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