Das Experiment

A psychological experiment gone horribly awry is subject of Das Experiment, a new German film that toes the line between plausibility and dramatic effect. A group of scientists wants to observe what happens to people when they simulate a prison environment for two weeks. They split the volunteers into two groups, prisoners and guards, and set a few general rules. To their surprise, everybody assimilates into their roles, perhaps a little two quickly. Two personalities emerge after a couple days. For the guards, Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi, The World is Not Enough, Jakob the Liar) emerges as their de facto leader, and for the prisoners, Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu, The Invisible Circus, Knockin' on Heaven's Door).

Most of the people are there for the money. Tarek is too, but he is also undercover trying to get a story. He believes that the military may be behind this somehow. Aiding him is a pair of glasses that doubles as a video camera. The main problem is that the movie never explains why nobody is doing anything with the footage. The other random element is Dora (Maren Eggert, The Pharmacist), a woman that Tarek met shortly before the experiment began. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Mortal Friends, Trickser) uses her as a sort of anchor to Tarek, keeping him grounded and giving him hope that something is waiting for him outside. He needs hope because the guards quickly assert themselves. It may be in part because of some of the prisoners, who take a flippant attitude towards the whole proceeding. Some of the guards find this offensive or humiliating, and their recourse is to take charge using force.

Bleibtreu is a huge star in Germany, and has had a decent number of his German films released here. His performance steals the show here. Of all the prisoners, Das Experiment only takes the time to develop three or four of them, leaving Bleibtreu with the lion's share of screen time and dialogue. He is an observer, yet he is also one of the troublemaking prisoners. The story develops his character a little too much, giving lots of extraneous background information. Many of the other character portraits seem hasty, from the fat sympathetic guard, to the quiet dangerous one.

It is the policy of the scientists running the experiment not to interfere, although everybody is under constant surveillance. Das Experiment is based on the novel Black Box by Mario Giordano, who adapted the novel with Don Bohlinger (Mortal Friends, Liebesengel) and Christoph Darnstadt. It's hard to take this movie seriously, because of how far it goes. Being a movie requires it to go too far, so that there is a sense of building tension and resolution. Hirschbiegel does this at the expense of believability, but it is an amusing ride. He is trying to make a statement about the inner nature of people and show how the concepts of groupthink can wreak havoc, but little things keep popping up in the backs of people's minds that don't quite make sense.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 24 minutes, Not Rated but contains language, nudity, sexuality, and violence, an easy R.

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