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Das Experiment

Harrowing and grotesque, all the more so because it was inspired by a real experiment on the psychological impact of captivity.

While the plot of Das Experiment is driven by the confrontation between Tarek, aka Prisoner #77, the agitator and Berus, the guard, the film is made more interesting because there are actually three sides in the experiment: the prisoners, the guards and the scientists ostensibly overseeing the exercise. Each are pitted against the other sides and to an extent each other. Ultimately, the boundaries blur as the film rushes towards its inevitable escalation and conclusion.

A love story (sparked by one of those movie coincidences you accept because it happens early enough in the film) adds a thread of humanity to the unpleasantness and gives Tarek something to hold on to while incarcarated.

As in director Oliver Hirschbiegel's subsequent film Der Untergang the acting is of a uniformly high calibre. (As an aside, Andrea Sawatzki who plays one of the doctors, looks uncannily like Gates McFadden. Not a bad thing this.)

There was a bit early on - before the characters solidified into recallable individuals - where we find out who each of these people were in the outside world. I had to resist the urge to revisit that section to see if background influenced their behaviour: was the executive more prone to sadism than the entertainer?

But while such backstory may have helped the actors (Justus von Dohnanyi who plays Berus says he envisaged the character taking part in the experiment to seek validation and self-esteem after a run of unsuccessful jobs) and while it may be interesting as an exercise, I believe that it's the system - as much or even more than the individuals - which is responsible for the behaviours dramatised in the film. While not discounting the importance of personal responsibility it's a rare individual (and by extrapolation groups or even countries) who is able to stop subjugation turning into resentment, or power into sadism. I'm reminded of another experiment, portrayed in the documentary Blue Eyed, which explores a similar theme, though the context is racism rather than prison captivity.


There's been some online discussion that draws the line between this movie, the real-world Stanford Experiment, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib. While I don't doubt there are some similarities I think the critical difference is that in Abu Ghraib the sadism was - to my mind undoubtedly - institutionalised by the commanding authority rather than developing organically as a result of the interplay between contextual circumstance and human psychology. Ie, the torture was ordered from above. As such, the more relevant comparison might be with the infamous Milgram experiment.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 10, 2005 8:00 AM.

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