A review of “Das Experiment” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: Unrated, but should be R for graphic language and violence

Run Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

 

A sense of dread pervades this claustrophobic German thriller that’s loosely based on the infamous Zimbardo experiments at Stanford University in 1971, in which human guinea pigs re-enacted a guards vs. prisoners environment; with scientifically thrilling, but psychologically disastrous, results.

It wasn’t pretty then and it isn’t pretty now.  Twenty well-paid recruits are divided up into two test groups, and let loose in a precisely-controlled prison-like encampment.  Among the “prisoners” is Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu of “Run Lola Run” fame), a mild-mannered taxi driver cum journalist who’s secretly gathering information for a glossy magazine story.  Outfitted with super-spy camera glasses, Fahd’s m.o. is to stir things up in order to make it look good on paper.     

Little does Fahd know how his foolish actions will affect the innovative research.  What happens to good people confined in evil spaces?  The test group’s personalities take root in dark, uncomfortable ways. The “guards” are thoroughly intoxicated with their newfound power, exhibiting sadistic tendencies.  The “prisoners” mock the guards, approaching the alternative living arrangement as a lucrative game.  When authority battles rebellion, the results are increasingly violent, blurring the thin line between reality and research.

Shades of “Lord of the Flies”. The powerful stimulation of control gone seriously awry.  Naturally there’s a melodramatic current of German males revealing their inner Nazis, which is difficult to take seriously.  As is an awkward subplot involving a headstrong love interest, who beds Fahd the night before he is incarcerated.

High on the list of lasting impressions is prison guard Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), a lilly-livered everyman who loses all sense of reality, playing the game as if his miserable life depended on it.  Worst of show is the ominous “black box”, a solitary confinement tool that leaves the user psychologically submissive and the viewer gasping for air.  Climax is intentionally, brutally violent, resulting in a bitter, melodramatic aftertaste.