Das Experiment

Das Experiment is a German thriller from 2001, whose title literally translates as The Experiment. You’re welcome.

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Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film is based on the 1971 Stanford prison experiment: a group of men were placed in a simulated prison, half of them acting as prisoners and the other half as guards. Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) plays a taxi driver who participates in such an experiment, where things quickly turn sauerkraut.

This is compulsory viewing for fans of freaky experiments and creepy Germans. The stifling, oppressive atmosphere closes in like prison walls. Heavy music bludgeons us into submission. Hirschbiegel’s direction consciously invokes holocaust imagery. The result is a frightening, distressing thriller.

But the film stretches credibility by diverging from Philip Zimbardo’s real experiment, which was stopped after just six days. Maybe that wouldn’t make such an exciting film (though it definitely could), but the film’s fictionalised events are too extreme and implausible.

Why wouldn’t the scientists stop the experiment when it’s clearly out of control? Why would they leave town while it’s ongoing? Why is that screwdriver there? This is the least convincing social experiment since Space Cadets.

Essentially The Shawshank Redemption meets Big Brother, this is a claustrophobic exploration of history and human nature. The movie’s exaggerations make it less interesting than it might have been, but does it succeed as an intense psychological experience? Cell yes.

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