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Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Locked in the prison of the mind


One of the more notorious experiments in the annals of psychiatry took place in 1971, at Stanford University, when Philip Zimbardo set out to scientifically prove the obvious: That when given a bit of power, most people will tend to abuse it. Zimbardo attempted to illustrate how situations involving power and control can warp the values and behavior of even the most average person; the Nazification process, as it were.


Das Experiment

Rating: * * * *
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: German
Opens June 22

Zimbardo's experiment was an exercise in role-playing: Volunteer students were separated into two groups, one of "prisoners," and one of "guards," and a mock prison was maintained in the university's basement and monitored by cameras. Halfway through the experiment, it was called off. Several prisoners had freaked out, one was forced into an isolation box and the guards were taking their disciplinarian duties to degrading extremes.

News photo
Moritz Bleibtreu in "Das Experiment"

This is obviously good movie material, especially given the recent craze for reality TV such as "Big Brother" or "Survivor," but somehow it comes as no surprise that a German director was drawn to tackle it. Oliver Hirschbiegel has crafted a taut, suspenseful psychodrama out of the concept, with a delirious escalation of madness that will either leave you transfixed with horror, or squirming out of your seat.

Moritz Bleibtreu ("Run, Lola, Run") plays Tarek, a taxi driver and ex-reporter who answers a classified ad for volunteers for a university scientific experiment. He signs up after being promised 4,000 marks for two weeks' participation in a mock prison. Out of 20 volunteers -- most of them just average guys doing it for the money -- eight are chosen as guards, while 12 will play prisoners.

Shortly before entering the "prison," Tarek contacts his former editor and agrees to cover the experiment secretly for an expose; he also has a one-night stand with Dora (Maren Eggert), a woman who's in a psychologically weak state following her father's sudden death. By film's end, Tarek will be in worse shape than her.

During the experiment, the guards are given uniforms, handcuffs, billy clubs and, of course, black boots -- all the trappings of power and authority. The prisoners, to reinforce their sense of powerlessness and dehumanization, are referred to only by numbers, not names, and are forced to wear white smocks without underwear. Their cells are barred, and the entire complex is monitored both by the guards and the academics overseeing the experiment. There are only a few rules, but it is left to the guards to decide how to enforce them, short of physical violence.

The atmosphere starts off playfully enough, but turns sour quickly, when the prisoners fail to follow the rules or respect the guards' authority. The character of Eckert (Timo Dierkes), a paunchy Elvis impersonator, is crucial to the point the film is making: He starts off as a jovial, lenient guard, but when the prisoners refuse to follow his orders, he is teased by his fellow guards as well, and soon becomes the nastiest guy in the place -- the "little man" who feels big through his position.

While most involved just want to get through the two weeks, the personalities of two men drive everyone to extremes: Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), a manager in real life, is your classic authority type, driven by a need to follow the rules to the letter. Tarek, on the other hand, is your classic rebel, refusing to bend to authority, especially when it seems arbitrary or excessive. Surely, when casting, the filmmakers had covert motives: Von Dohnanyi is blonde and Aryan, while Bleibtreu has darker, Semitic features.

The film is astounding in the way it illustrates how quickly separate groups can polarize, and how easily suspicion spreads: The guards start to think there are "plants" among them, deliberately trying to wreck the experiment; the prisoners start to panic, afraid they can't opt out any more, even if they've had enough. Nasty confrontations erupt, and the guards get brutal, chaining prisoners to the bars, stripping and gagging them, spraying them with fire extinguishers and worse.

Scenes like this seem a bit over the top. Some critics have looked at Hirschbiegel's slam-bam style, obviously influenced by David Fincher's "Fight Club" in its aggressive visual rhythm, and assumed he's making an exaggerated, Hollywood-style action flick. Well, the shocker is that so many of the film's dramatic incidents did happen at Stanford in '71, the prisoners' revolt and the fire-extinguishers among them. Tarek's undercover journalist, an angle that seems like pure fiction, is based on one '71 "prisoner" who was an undercover campus leftist, intent on exposing the authorities' plans to clamp down on the antiwar student movement. (With paranoia like that, it's no wonder things got out of hand.) Even the film's apocalyptic ending, which is purely fictional, seems all too plausible in light of how the '71 experiment teetered on the brink of chaos.

Hirschbiegel has obviously learned lessons from the success of "Run, Lola, Run." He makes his film a visceral, eye-catching shocker first and foremost, while letting the deeper psychological truths fall as they may. Actually, the violence and brutality in the film is rather minimal compared to most mainstream flicks. But watching two average guys -- an office manager and a kiosk clerk -- who had been chatting pleasantly just days before, get to the point where one will break open the other's head with a billy club, watching that tension build and explode is a truly frightening thing.

"Das Experiment" is a vivid, nightmarish indictment of institutional dehumanization, comparable to the boot-camp sequences of "Full Metal Jacket," or the unforgettable B-movie "Shock Corridor." In a nation where bullying remains a major problem (not to mention the tradition of self-subjugation), "Das Experiment" should be required viewing.



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