2001, R, 113 min. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Starring Justus von Dohnanyi, Maren Eggert, Wotan Wilke Môhring, Oliver Stokowski, Christian Berkel, Timo Dierkes, Moritz Bleibtreu.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 6, 2002
Big Brother meets Survivor at Heinrich Himmler's house. Loosely based on Mario Giordano's novel Black Box (which was itself taken from the infamous Stanford Prison experiment of 1971, in which citizen “guards” and citizen “prisoners” were placed in an artificially created prison environment for 14 days to see just what would happen to presumably normal people in such conditions), Das Experiment relocates its action to a nameless German city, which imbues this German-made film with vague but unavoidable Nazi overtones. Twenty men are selected at random and given 4,000 deutsche marks to participate in the study. Twelve are deemed prisoners, the other eight guards. The guards get uniforms, codified rules, and power. The prisoners get nada, save an increasing barrage of rigid, authoritarian beat-downs and a certain sense that maybe 4,000 marks isn't all that much after all (it's actually around $1,800). Bleibtreu, who starred opposite Franka Potente in Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, plays the leader of the prisoners. Before entering into the experiment he moonlighted as a cabby and photographer; inside the mock prison, he emerges as the leader of the incarcerated, pushing the buttons of both the guards and his fellow prisoners. As a protagonist, he's less than entirely palatable, although when compared with Justus von Dohnanyi's increasingly sadistic guard, he's a peach. As the days drag forward (the film uses intertitles to differentiate what would otherwise be unknown thanks to the drab, timeless prison set), the guards descend into acts of minor humiliation -- for example, one lactose-intolerant prisoner is made to drink milk -- to major ones, and from there to a debased state mirrored by the growingly hopeless depression of their charges. Strippings, beatings, and -- most horribly -- the use of the Beach Boys' saccharine “Wouldn't It Be Nice?” become commonplace as the two groups work their inexorable way toward a bloody cacophony of mismanaged Skinner Box brutality. There can be only one satisfying conclusion to Das Experiment, and it's no secret, even early on, what that will be (the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme, after all, goes back well before Charles Foster Kane applied it to the newspaper business), but director Hirschbiegel's film is riveting for all that, not least of which is the current state of affairs in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere in the war on terror. Bleibtreu, with his handsomely chubby face and shaved head, is a perfect foil for the out-of-control guardians; it looks like he's chewing on his tongue the whole time and enjoying the taste. By the time he's tossed into the lightless, confining “black box” (the scenes are disturbingly shot in the sickly green glow of night-vision optics), you know an awful line is perilously close to being crossed, and it's not long afterward that everybody is wearing a scarlet bib around their white prison tunics. Claustrophobic and clinical, predictable yet satisfying, Das Experiment doesn't tell you anything about human nature you probably haven't already suspected, but then again it's good to be reminded of these dark things from time to time. Especially these days.