Das Experiment (2001) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, disturbing situations, language, sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 120 min.
Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski, Wotan Wilke Mohring
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay: Don Bohlinger, Cristoph Darnstadt, Mario Giordano
Review published September 28, 2002
Das Experiment made me want to shout obscenities at the screen. Itís been a while since Iíve actually been angry while watching a film, and had I gone to the theater alone, I probably would have walked out before the ending. Beatings, torture, rape, men urinating on each other, forced to cover themselves in fecal matter are not my idea of a good time at the movies. Ironically, these scenes were the least offensive moments in what turns out to be a well-acted but disingenuous exploitation flick. It offends me when something as complex and profoundly serious as abusive and violent behavior found latent in human beings should try to masquerade sheepishly in a film about an actual clinical study only to sensationalize its story for the sake of entertainment value.
Although there is a disclaimer in the US release of this film stating that it is a complete work of fiction and not a re-enactment of actual events, it is actually inspired by an experiment that actually happened in the United States back in 1971, funded by Stanford University. Twenty-four students were divided into guards and prisoners in a simulation of prison life. The duration was to last two weeks, but after only six days the experiment had to be shut down after the ďguardsĒ started to humiliate and torture the inmates.
The probable reason for the disclaimer lies in the fact that Das Experiment is an extreme exaggeration of these events, taking what was in reality abusive humiliation and cranking up the sensationalism to include group beatings, rape and murder. By doing so, the filmmakers make the fatal error of losing control of the higher ground and subjects us to the most egregious case scenario of what could potentially happen in such an experiment, as if we would lose interest if it didnít step up the violence and humiliation to the maximum proportion allowed. The experiment of 1971 is merely fodder for a sadistic fantasy fiction posing as a warning of the human potential to harm if the wrong types of people are in charge of rehabilitation.
Even worse than the fabrication and sensationalism is that the filmmakers actually want you to be entertained within the framework of the depictions of moral depravity. The screenwriters have the audacity of injecting a romance to the proceedings, ostensibly for the purpose of having a contrived happy ending. Even if this angle were important to the story, and it isnít, the relationship depicted is awkward and superficial, never establishing why these two characters would have such profound feelings for each other after one night of casual sex that life, limb and the course of human events should be compromised for any reason. In addition, a sex scene is plays out over a series of flashbacks, and the film later also includes some implied masturbation, all of which are interjected between scenes of masochism. Such titillation to induce the audience into a state of arousal before more enactments of horrific abuse is not only gratuitous but leads me to believe the creators of the film outwardly eschew the acts within yet subconsciously find them morbidly entertaining at the same time.
Further evidence that the Das Experiment's creators seek to entertain rather than educate comes from turning the last half hour into a violent chase thriller. By this time the film is so over-the-top, it completely stops making sense altogether. Why would the men seek to attack those who are conducting the experiment when they will not get any money for breaking the rules, especially when almost all of them claim that itís the primary reason they are doing it? Why would the guards, who should be more well-grounded than the prisoners since they go back out into the real world at the end of every day, suddenly become of the opinion that whatever crimes they commit will have no consequences to them once the day is over, including murder and rape? Why would the conductors of the experiment feel the need to introduce the ďblack boxĒ for solitary confinement (they claim itís just for show) when the results of their experiment have already exceeded their expectations? And why is there a screwdriver that conveniently makes its way into the black box for an easy way outÖand this same screwdriver can also open a panel in the ďprisonĒ for easy escape? My head is still swimming from all of the contrivances and lack of explanation.
Because most of the film is hogwash from the minds of the screenwriters and a careless director, there arenít any real lessons one can draw from Das Experiment other than how NOT to make a movie about a sensitive issue. For those who really want to understand the effects of unchecked sadism in a fictional mode, itís a far wiser decision to read "Lord of the Flies," or watch the films Cool Hand Luke or Shock Corridor. Das Experiment may have better acting and writing, but ultimately itís no different thematically than such sadistic crap posing as entertainment as Lock Up, Caged Heat or Reform School Girls. Das Experiment doesn't say as much about the untapped brutality within many people as it does about the people who find this film an exciting form of entertainment, or the gullibility of those who think it was created with the noblest of intentions always clearly in mind.
©2003 Vince Leo