Byline: STEPHEN SCHAEFER
In German with English subtitles. At the Kendall Square Cinema.
3 stars (out of four)
The smart, slick German import “Das Experiment” (“The Experiment”) scores as a compelling psychological study and an intense, ultraviolent thriller. Unlike far too many American “thrillers” that defy common sense and logic, “Das Experiment” is involving because it is plausible.
Adapted from Mario Giordano’s novel “Black Box” and scripted by Giordano, Christoph Darnstadt and Don Bohlinger, this international film festival award winner is inspired by the 1971 Stanford University Prison Experiment. This study put a group of male volunteers into a makeshift prison and cast them as either prisoners or guards. The intention was to learn what would happen if you put ordinary people in an environment where they had power over others.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film in no way mirrors the actual Stanford experiment; fiction lets the violence (and the ensuing body count) run much higher.
Here, 20 men answer a newspaper ad to be a part of an experiment for the equivalent of $1,000; the study requires them to role-play as inmates or guards within a prison setting for two weeks. All their interactions supposedly are monitored via security cameras by Dr. Thon (Edgar Selge) and his Vampira-like assistant, the aptly named Dr. Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki).
The first rule for the guards is no violence. Among the eight chosen to wear uniforms (they’re given sticks but no guns), two stand out: a jolly Elvis impersonator (Timo Dierkes) and an airline office worker named Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi). They quickly become the most sadistic of the lot and assume leadership.
What they don’t know is that among the 12 “prisoners” is Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu), a magazine reporter equipped with a 007-style video recorder in his reading glasses. Because he assumes – rightly, as it turns out – that this is actually a stress study for the military, Fahd is planning an expose.
His fellow inmates include Schutte (Oliver Stokowski) a lonely newspaper vendor and self-described “professional guinea pig” who’s saving for a used Ferrari, and Steinhoff (Christian Berkel), a taciturn soldier type who is really an Air Force pilot, also undercover.
The night before Fahd begins the experiment, he rather dramatically meets Dora (Maren Eggert): Their cars collide when she runs a red light. Dora is mourning the death of her father and she and Fahd form an almost psychic bond after spending the night together.
This is most fortunate for Fahd, who will need all the help, psychic or otherwise, he can get. He willingly arouses the antagonism of the guards supposedly to fuel a better story and soon finds himself the target of their (unmonitored, nontelevised) wrath. He also has, from a childhood incident, a phobia of being confined in a dark, small space, which means when the fearful “black box” is brought into the cellblock, we know it’s not going to be used only as a “psychological deterrent,” as Dr. Thon promises.
As the experiment rapidly careens out of control, the implications are obvious: What would you do if given life-or-death control over others? Would you soon transform from a good ol’ boy to a warmongering cowboy?
The impeccable casting assures that these are faces you won’t soon forget. The Polish-born Bleibtreu, with his soulful eyes and plump lips, is an obvious sensualist (and, thanks to “Run Lola Run,” Germany’s reigning male star). Von Dohnanyi’s Berus is incredibly scary, an Aryan ideal as Nazi nightmare.
(“Das Experiment” contains explicit violence, nudity and scenes of torture and confinement.)
Caption: SHOCKING: Moritz Bleibtreu stars as an undercover reporter in `Das Experiment,’ inspired by Stanford University’s Prison Experiment.