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Experiment, The

Review by: 
Don't Feed the Dead
Das Experiment
Release Date: 
Columbia Tri-Star
Dark Drama
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Oliver Hirschbiegel
Moritz Bleibtreu
Christian Berkel
Bottom Line: 

When I read the back of the DVD for the Experiment I quickly dropped my copy of Gangs of New York and danced my way to the checkout counter. I finally found a movie based on the infamous 1971 "Stanford Experiment", which role played prison guards and prisoners in a simulated environment. To me, this is a golden find because I have my degree in psychology, and the experiment itself have had a profound effect on behavioral science.

A little background on the "Stanford Experiment": In essence, psychologists at Stanford University in California were curious to see how humans would react to a prison environment in a role play scenario. The experiment consisted of two groups, the prisoners and prison guards. After a few days, the psychologists noticed that the guards had formed aggressive tendencies towards the prisoners, and in turn, the prisoners had formed a sense of self doubt and depression. The experiment had to be stopped after a week due to the depressive state of the prisoners and the violent outbursts by the prison guards. This was a profound discovery because it showed that environment can manipulate the behavioral patterns of humans, no matter their psychological state previous to the situation.

Anyways, the movie takes place in modern day Germany, where a group of psychologists place an ad for the experiment. Replied to by many, the movie focuses on a journalist/ taxi driver (Tarek) that places himself in the experiment in order to make a cool 10 grand payoff for the story. He comes prepared with high tech spy glasses to video monitor the happenings of the experiment which relay the images to a faux cassette player held with his belongings. On the eve prior to the beginning of the experiment he gets into an auto accident with a beautiful girl, which he falls for after a one night stand. The next day the assignments are handed out and our boy Tarek receives the role as one of twelve prisoners (there are eight guards). The guards are briefed on the prison rules, and are instructed never to use violence. We cut to the showers where prisoners are being hosed down to clean them before entering the cell area. The prisoners are then handed burlap dresses as uniforms for the prison and escorted to their respective cells, packed in trios.

At first, the prisoners begin acting unruly and give the guards lip, under the premise that this is all a game. Tarek acts the most outlandish, trying to get the most reaction from the guards for his story. During mealtime, another prisoner, Schutte, refuses to drink his milk because he is lactose intolerant. As a rule, prisoners MUST finish their entire meal. Tarek grabs the milk and drinks it for the other prisoner, further infuriating the guards and riling up the fellow prisoners. The guards meet after mealtime to discuss punishment for the recent outbursts from the prisoners and decide on pushups as a form of punishment. Instituting their new punishment, the prisoners are forced to do pushups in tandem for each outburst by any single prisoner. This includes speaking when not told to, answering back and treating the guards informally. At the next meal, Schutte again refuses to drink his milk and the group of prisoners all drop and do pushups to support their "brother". The guards get pissed off at the complete disregard for their rules and go back to the drawing board to further the punishment. It is decided that humiliation is now the tool to use against the prisoners.

A midnight raid of the prisoners' cells by the guards is planned, and they carry such a maneuver out. Armed with fire extinguishers, the guards rush the prisoners, taking both their dress attire and bedding out of their cells as means of punishment. This is our first glimpse at the change of mentality by both the prisoners and guards, as the prisoners become degraded by the actions of the guards, and the guards begin their power trip. All the while this is happening, the girl that Tarek had the one night stand is frantically searching for him because she somehow fell in love with him too.

One night, Tarek converses with his fellow inmate Steinhoff and discovers that Steinhoff is a plant as well, but only as observation for the military. Steinhoff warns Tarek that the experiment is not a game, and that he should watch what he does because the guards are becoming increasingly violent. Tarek disregards the warning and increases his level of unruliness to generate a response from the guards. The levels of violence increase in intensity and frequency, leading up to a wonderful climax that I won't spoil for y'all.

I absolutely loved the execution of role play in this movie and the developmental aspects of the human behavior. The viewer is treated to a wonderful transformation of character by not only the prisoners and guards, but the psychologists as well. The movie never gets to a point where the viewer feels that the violence is gratuitous, however, the violence is implicated in a way where the viewer can notice the change in character and associate the feelings that all parties hold at the moment. I often felt myself captivated by the ways in which each character's persona began adapting to the situation at hand. Some became depressed, others power hungry, but in the end neither prisoner or guard reacted as though the experiment was a game.

The extras on the DVD included director commentary (in German) as well as a few deleted scenes which I felt had no bearing on the overall plot. I would have liked to have seen an in depth look at the original Stanford Experiment so that the viewer (not a psych graduate) could have gained a sense for the meaning of the movie and the experiment as whole. Other than the lapse on DVD extras, this movie gets the full on rating from me and I highly recommend it to an alternative of the everyday walk through American horror. Endure the subtitles, and embrace the change of the human psyche!


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