Das Experiment (2001)

After more than 30 years, the “Stanford Prison Experiment” continues to be the subject of heated debates among psychologists, historians, lawyers, and human rights advocates. Its results have been used to explain everything from the horrors of the Holocaust to the violence in maximum-security facilities.

In 1971, under the aegis of the Stanford University, 20 male volunteers participated in a study aimed at reconstructing the psychological conditions of prison life. Some of the subjects were assigned the roles of guards, while the rest posed as prisoners. To the surprise of the researchers in charge, in only a few days, the guards became abnormally sadistic and the prisoners sank into a terrible state of depression. As a consequence, the experiment that was scheduled to last for two weeks had to be cancelled on its sixth day.

Das Experiment is an intense German film based on the novel, Black Box by Mario Giordano, inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Das Experiment imagines beyond the actual events, elaborating on what would have happened if the researchers had completely lost control of the experiment.

As the film begins, Tarek Fahd (Mortiz Bleibtreu), a well-educated taxi driver in need of some extra cash, signs up for an experiment being conducted at a German university. The reward for two weeks’ commitment is 4,000 marks (about $1,800 U.S.). He meets the researchers in charge, as well as the other, average-seeming candidates, polite and talkative.

After a series of physical and psychological tests, 12 of the volunteers, including Tarek, are randomly assigned to be prisoners (dressed in white robes and sandals), while the other eight become uniformed guards. For the first hours of the experiment, the groups are at ease with each other. They play, chat and joke together without incident. Everybody takes the experiment as a friendly game. But soon, the prisoners, led by Tarek, begin to test how much they can defy the guards’ authority.

This makes the guards initially sympathetic, and they do not know how to proceed; after all, the authority provided by their uniforms is entirely fictitious. They are not real guards, and the prisoners are not criminals. However, the guards’ egos are at stake, as they try to live up to the expectations engendered by their uniforms. Ultimately, they embrace their role with a tenacity that suggests they believe their performance in the experiment will redeem them of whatever problems they may have in the real world.

The conflict reaches a zenith when Tarek organizes a revolt and cages two guards. One of the remaining guards, Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), recalls reading somewhere that humiliating an individual is one way to obtain his obedience. So, they proceed to undress the prisoners and spray them with fire extinguishers, leaving them terrified in lightless cells.

When his plan works, Berus gains the guards’ respect and becomes their leader. This is rather unexpected, as guards and prisoners alike used to make fun of Berus’ terrible body odor. However, in Das Experiment, as in real life, leaders emerge during difficult situations. Once Berus rises, nobody dares to question him, even when, later in the film, he turns sadistic.

To underline thematic parallels between the representation of power run amok and the Holocaust, Das Experiment makes visual connections between the prisoners and the Jews, and the guards and the Nazis. For instance, Tarek is shaved by the guards, wears filthy robes, and is addressed not by name but by his prisoner number. He certainly looks more like an inmate from a concentration camp than a subject of a University experiment. On the other hand, the guards’ fetishistic uniforms are reminiscent of the flamboyant SS attire. And, in one harrowing scene, the guards make a unanimous vote, raising their right hands in a gesture much like the notorious Nazi salute.

Das Experiment focuses on victims and perpetrators, but it also addresses the responsibility of observers. The researchers here appear fascinated by the cruelty and clashes among prisoners and guards, hesitant to interfere. At one point, head scientist Dr. Thon (Edgar Selge) states that Tarek and Berus are the most important subjects, and their presence is essential to the success of the experiment. The scientific ethics mentioned at the beginning of the film, aimed at protecting the human subjects, appear to vanish as the experiment progresses. What could have been considered as an obvious violation to the safety rules at the start of the experiment, it became a matter of scientific curiosity after a series of increasingly brutal confrontations. The scientists are “dehumanized” much like the guards.

The viewer is made an accomplice in the researchers’ voyeurism. As horrific as its subject matter may be, Das Experiment is an incredibly — perhaps unnervingly — engaging film. The viewer, very much like the scientists, may condone the violence and enjoy watching the brutal confrontation between Tarek and Berus.

Still, while they may be similar, violent narratives are not received I the same ways around the world. Consider the differences in the promotion of this film in the U.S. and in Europe. One can only wonder as to why, even when it was nominated for a variety of European awards, such as the Grand Prix at the Paris Film Festival, Das Experiment has hardly been publicized in the U.S.

One reason may be that Das Experiment genuinely disturbing. Its power resides in its uncompromising presentation of cruelty as an intrinsic component of human nature. Given the right circumstances, anybody might become “evil.” Quite the opposite, the American horror pantheon is populated by embodiments of “otherness,” where the monster is definitively “different” from us. Forget about Freddy and Dr. Lecter. Das Experiment is a truly terrifying film.