“Don’t worry, it’s not unpleasant”(Dr. Jutta Grimm)
How many times do you see a film that genuinely shocks you? Disturbs you? I’m not talking about your average bloody horror tease à la Wes Craven, but something that acts on your mind. It is always the things that can happen, that approach reality, that make for the fiercest drama. The film "Das Experiment", despite a few cringe-worthy sub-plots and episodes, succeeds in brutally reminding us how our egos can be inflated to such an extent that we act in a way we never would have dreamt of. Give a man a role, tell him he’s in charge, he’s the important one, give him a pair of handcuffs and a truncheon and see how long it takes him to make use of them....
Of course, you have heard this all before – The Stanford Prison experiment right? Yes, to all intents and purposes, the concept is the same – except this one is fictional, based on the novel "Black Box" by Mario Giordano and, as such, takes us a little further – perhaps implying what may have happened if the Stanford experiment had not been terminated prematurely. In a similar vein, on BBC2 recently, a docu-drama-reality TV show took place which again drew it’s theory from Zimbardo’s project of the 1970s. "Prisoner: The Experiment" took 15 men placing them in the roles of prisoners and guards and sat back to watch what would happen. The results this time were a little strange – mainly because all the volunteers were aware of what the experiment involved having been fully briefed beforehand (this was not the case with the Stanford project). The guards were reluctant to display overt authority towards their prisoners and as such, the same divide was never created. The questions of "conformity" and "obedience" have been analysed for many years, as has the role of authority – in relation for example to the Third Reich – what can power really do to the average human being? All of this falls within the realms of social psychology – and in particular – social influence.
The Concept (some spoilers ahead)
From Scientific experiment, to reality TV, to feature film. "Das Experiment" which claims to be directly influenced by the Stanford Prison experiment (it could hardly claim otherwise) is based on the idea of a scientific experiment that is to be carried out over 14 days using members of the public. The volunteers are drawn in by an advert appearing in the newspaper and the lure of a cash reward of 4000 DM. 20 men are selected, 8 will be guards, twelve prisoners. Three scientists observe – a Professor and his two assistants.
This is the directorial debut of Oliver Hirschbiegel and the fictionalised version of the prison experiment works well in many ways particularly in its attempt to attach real emotions to the participants. The portrayal of fear on the part of the prisoners and violent power on the part of the guards, as well as those who fall short or go beyond between the defined "norms" is compelling.
The plot centres on Tarek (Moritz Bliebtrue), a taxi driver and ex-reporter who falls back on his former career by signing up for the project equipped with hidden-camera spectacles – to earn an extra bonus for the juicy insider story. The experiment begins with a light-hearted show of banter between guards and prisoners – this is an experiment, they are here for the experience, or the money – there is no reason for anyone to get upset. Maybe at the behest of our lead character though, who stirs things up from the start, we begin to see how the roles allocated eventually consume the individuals. What follows is a shocking display of humiliation as a tool to force people into subservience. The humiliation in itself is distressing and sometimes difficult to watch but, without spoiling the outcome, the experiment disintegrates into something a lot more troubling and sinister.
The character development is generally very good. We empathise with our "hero" Tarek from the start and as he provides the initial "fun" in the fabricated prison, we grow to like him all the more - even when his antics prove to awaken the latent sadism in the guards. What is most striking however is his strength throughout the intense humiliation he suffers at the hands of Bemus, the lead guard. His personal struggle to overcome an intense case of claustrophobia (brought on by an horrific experience in his childhood) is equally compelling, his need for a great story is somewhat sidelined by his genuine desire to survive this hell and a need to support his fellow inmates.
Equally impressive is the character of his cellmate – Steinhoff (no.38) – a pilot from the German forces who, like our hero, has been somewhat planted in the forced situation to observe and assess. His unwillingness to cooperate with Tarek’s anarchic gestures is maintained for about half the film, but the increasingly apparent sadistic nature of certain guards leads him to stand alongside his fellow prisoner – his aloof façade cannot be maintained in such an atmosphere of chaos. Schütte is another prisoner befriended by Tarek, his character is perhaps the most emotionally charged – certainly for us watching. His lack of relations or friends in the outside world makes him a prime target for the evil games of the guards, he is vulnerable from the start – but eager to make some money to buy his dream Ferrari "everyone should have a dream" he confesses early on to Tarek.
The general portrayal of the opposing sides is the major attraction of the film. We see the prisoners turn from care-free men to subservient and fearful guinea pigs - one man chewing at his hand, another rocking on his bed. The guards, once faced with the anarchy of the prisoners and the potential for disruption, decide to reverse the humiliation on their counterpart.
"I once read that you get control in such a situation by humiliation"(Berus)
The lead is initially taken by Kamps, but his role of prison guard is later seen as faint-hearted when compared with Berus. The latter is first seen as a quiet eccentric – when questioned about his family, he is reluctant to say anything, when it is pointed out that he has a problem with personal hygiene – something snaps. The disturbing aspect of our psyche is wonderfully portrayed in this character. Not only does he resort to the most brutal methods of discipline, but he goes beyond anything the experiment had required of him – taking the role of prison warden to its extremes – carrying out aggressions that seem, beyond the realms of normal behaviour even in such an abnormal setting. Berus is ultimately convincing as the man beset by personal problems, resulting in outward violence and severe lack of respect for any human dignity. The Elvis impersonator Eckert, with his horrible quif and beer gut is repellent ad ultimately disturbing as he reveals his true nature towards the end of the film.
The antiseptic, sparse set design is impressive and acts as an ideal background for the desperation and malevolence that the experiment provokes. The strip-lighting, the fact that the prison is set in the basement of some scientific research centre – the symbolic "black box" which sits opposite the cell of Tarek – all his fears are there within that object. Symbols in general are subtle yet apparent – the shaving of Tarek’s head and the plain white robes that the prisoners are made to wear bring obvious connotations of the treatment of Jews during World War II. The zealous acts of the guards are equally reminiscent of the human beings that implemented and maintained the most shocking genocide of the 20th century.
The violence in general in the film is shocking, but nevertheless essential to the films impact. It is in no way gratuitous, but instead demonstrates the barbarity of the human species. We have seen similar portrayals in films such as the fight for survival in Battle Royale and parodied in a gameshow context in Series 7: The Contenders. School kids forced to fight to the death, contestants plucked out of obscurity to battle in some bizarre quest for the ultimate prize – your life. Here, we are brought a little closer to reality simply because of the films link with an actual event – the Stanford experiment. The closer a fictional account is to reality as we perceive it, the more disturbing the events on the silver screen will be. We recognise our own human traits in these unassuming men that enter the experiment – we tell ourselves that we would never be reduced to such base and sadistic behaviour or that we would never be subservient to another human being to the extent of denying our human liberties – but we cannot know this for sure. The fact that the violence is all-consuming – that the experiment is inevitably taken out of the hands of those people that created it, the people that were meant to assure the safety of the volunteers – all this works on our base fears. Fears that are ultimately concerned with our own human condition.
What doesn’t work?
The love story. Oh, why does there have to be a love story? The intial meeting between Dora and Tarek is weak enough in it's scope, but her strange demeanour and the unrealistic way in which she attachs herself to him after one brief encounter seems completely surreal and certainly doesn’t blend with the general desire for realism within the film. We can see that it acts as a sort of comparison between the prison and the outside, the sour and the sweet, the violence and the chance of love, but it does not seem credible. It may have worked if the relationship had been founded on something more valid than one brief night of sex – to all intents and purposes a one night stand. Some smaller observations – the ridiculous presence of a screwdriver when Tarek is imprisoned in the Black Box – did a guard just happen to leave that lying around? This spoils what otherwise would have been an intense replication of what claustrophobia really feels like – the green-tinged spotlight focuses on our hero and all we hear is his heavy breathing. The superimposing of Dora’s face is equally disappointing at this point in the movie – what could have been an intense scene is ruined by these two factors.
Ultimately, these elements do not destroy the overall success of the film – although they do lessen the impact. Interestingly, the man who conducted the real-life prison experiment – Zimbardo has criticised the film because of it's excessive violence – something that never occurred (indeed was not allowed to occur) in that famous project. The use of sexual violence may also seem to be a little sensationalist – it does not seem necessary to the plot. The film does seem far-fetched at times, but it is nevertheless compelling viewing and certainly not your usual Hollywood fodder. Some of the questions raised are valid and perhaps the only failing in this sense is that they are too easily brushed over. I have read several reviews of the film – some full of praise, some a little critical. From a personal point of view, it is a valid film with a perceptive analysis of conformity, obedience, anarchy and the ability to rule or be ruled.
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay: Don Bohlinger / Christoph Darnstädt
Based on the novel Black Box by: Mario Giordano
Cast (main characters only):
Moritz Bleibtreu - Tarek Fahd
Christian Berkel – Steinhoff
Oliver Stokowski – Schütte
Justus von Dohnanyi – Berus
Nicki von Tempelhoff – Kamps
Timo Dierkes – Eckert
Edgar Selge - Professor Dr. Klaus Thon
Andrea Sawatzki - Dr. Jutta Grimm
Maren Eggert - Dora
www.imdb.com - see here for further cast list