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Full Review

Das Experiment
Review by Jurgen Fauth

Guide Rating -  


Oliver Hirschbiegel's debut film is a swift, slick thriller with a pumping soundtrack, a compelling setup, and a harrowing conclusion. For an experiment that would have greatly pleased Michel Foucault, a group of volunteers is divided into guardians and prisoners in a simulated jail. The guards slip into uniforms complete with night sticks, whistles, and handcuffs, while the prisoners strip down to nothing but shirts and trade in their names for numbers.

Tarek, played by Moritz Bleibtreu ("Run Lola Run"), becomes number 77. The university basement is turned into a panopticon par excellence: the guards are overseeing the prisoners while the scientists are watching everything on video screens. Like in a proto-fascist reality tv show, surveillance is everywhere: complete control. Both groups are exhorted to follow the rules: the prisoners must obey, and the guards are to maintain peace and order. No matter what, there is to be no violence. Everybody's still cracking jokes, but some men are wearing boots and others flip-flops....

Tarek is not only participating for the money the guinea pigs are to receive for their participation; he is a journalist looking for a story. He ridicules the guards and inspires a playful prison riot. But when the guards hesitatingly respond, they find that they are beginning to enjoy their power.

Needless to say, the experiment escalates, which is exactly what the scientists were looking for -- but soon events spiral out of control and get a lot uglier than they are supposed to.

"Das Experiment" is told with panache and vitality from the first to the last shot. Moritz Bleibtreu, one of Germany's finest contemporary actors, and Justus von Dohnanyi as the head guard deliver powerful performances. The story, based on the novel "Black Box" by Mario Giordano, works as action drama, psychological thriller, and cautionary tale about the human beast. The word "Nazi" is only uttered once, but of course the ghost of Germany's past hovers over the entire movie. How could anybody commit the horrific crimes of the Third Reich? How much does it take to turn ordinary citizens into monsters? Not much, "Das Experiment" seems to suggest. Start with uniforms and rules, and anger, desire, and fear will soon follow. The seductiveness of power will do the rest. The shocked silence at the end of the film is a warning.


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