Obviously the film goes a bit further, and the situation escalates to a more violent outcome than the real life one did. I only read about the Stanford experiment after watching this film, and a few things which I thought were stretching credibility a bit turned out to be ones which which did really happen - a prisoner breaking down within two days seemed unlikely, but that actually happened at Stanford.
As for the film itself, it is very well shot, and the editing picks up the pace as it hurtles towards a conclusion. The acting is spot-on too. The only things that spoiled it for me was the strange sub-plot about the hero's girlfriend which was told in flashbacks interleaved in the main story. For me it was intrusive and detracted from the main plot.
As a piece of cinema on its own, this rates quite highly, but the real value of it is in the thoughts it can provoke if you start thinking about the implications, of how brutality can be carried out by 'normal' people if the circumstances are right, with the victims being dehumanised. It makes it easier to understand how some of the Nazi concentration camps were possible (which makes it especially brave for a German to make this film) and how some of the more recent events at Abu Ghraib were possible.
Perhaps the most scary thing about the whole experiment, is that the BBC decided to repeat it on film at about the time this film was being made. They put in some safeguards, like a rule about no physical violence/contact being allowed. Guess what? the same conditions were placed in this fictional experiment. Fortunately the BBC experiment didn't end as violently, but it was still abandoned half-way through because of the psychological effects on the subjects.
I did find myself wondering how people endure real prison sentences of years, seeing how a few days can effect someone, and the next time I see someone sentenced to one month in jail I will not be thinking that they have got off lightly! Any film that can inspire such speculation in the viewer must deserve five stars - I just took one off for the clumsy girlfriend sub-plot, and the lack of extras: a bit of documentary on the Stanford experiment including original footage, would have been perfect. Maybe they are saving that for a future special edition?
A taxi driver Tarek (Bleibtreu) sees an ad on a newspaper that looks very interesting, which read: "Participants Needed. 2 Weeks in a Mock Prison. Reward 4,000 German marks." He decides to apply, is accepted, and goes to a university where this experiment is to be done.
The "experiment" is conducted as follows: 20 participants are divided into to groups, 8 "guards" and 12 "prisoners." The former group were given uniform, handcuffs and other equipments while the latter are required to live in a small cell, wearing only a long white jacket. Though no violence is allowed on both sides, the "guards" set up 6 rules for the "prisoners" to obey. In case of emergency, the professors provide monitoring cameras that relay the images to the controlling room where the supervisors are supposed to watch over every detail of the behaivors of the participants. In this way, the first day starts.
But, as the days pass, the at first peaceful relations between the two groups start to get intensified. Some slight scuffle develops into a bigger and more serious fight and even the uprising of Tarek (now called No. 77), and those "guards" and "prisoners," ordinary people up until then, seriously start to struggle for the power, using unnecessary method of torturing and humiliating prisoners. The "experiment," revealing the brutal human nature under ever-increasing pressure, goes more than the intellectual professors expected, and everything results in inevitable catastrophy.
The premise of this psychological thriller is so simple (and some may remember Samuel Fuller's "Shock Corridor") that you may be incredulous reading my summery, but I can tell you that this film is really harrowing and traumatic, and at the same time very gripping as a thriller. If my review lead you to think that this film is all about violence, you are mistaken. "Das Experiment" is, in my opinion, a first-rate psychological drama, or psychological thriller that will rivet your heart slowly but steadily, like any best Hitchcock films. But you must be also warned. Some scenes realize those humiliations of characters including Tarek in a so disturbing way -- for instance, his hair is all shaven by the secret attack by the guards -- that you stop even breathing with eyes nailed on the nightmare visions the first-time director (as feature) Oliver Hirschbiegel shows.
"Das Experiment" is an example of superb storytelling and observations on humans (and surprisingly, it contains some romance in it). Though some parts of the film seem to go too far (the university will not, I think, do this sloppy job), "Das Experiment," absorbing thriller and thought-provoking study on humanity, should not be missed.
Finally some confusing things should be made clear. The film is based on the book "Black Box" by Mario Giordano, of which story is based on the psychological experiment conducted by Stanford University. Some audience might think that this film is directly based on this "Stanford Prison Experiment." The experiment itself is really a historical truth, but the film, set in today's German, clearly doesn't draw what actually happened at this university. But this fact doesn't reduce the value of the film at all.
What happens when we give a small group of people power over others? How do different people react to such power? The shy and unloved becomes the tyrant, the rebelliouse beceomes the whimp and everything and everyone is turned inside out, revealing their darker inner selves, or the hidden hero they never knew they were.
When everything runs out of control the suspense is unbearable. Who runs the show now? Reality and Fantasy become indistinguishable, and we look right onto our darkest fears about who we are. A thrilling, mind-twisting, exciting, scary work of art not to be missed.
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