Inspired by the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 and based on the provocative book by Mario Giordano called Black Box, "The Experiment" is an unflinching glimpse into the dark, subversive nature of the human psyche. Thought-provoking in its content and design, this German film is an attempt to examine the corruptive effects of power and group psychology. It seeks to recreate true events wherein volunteers were thrust into a simulated environment after been assigned prisoner and guard roles. Their actions were then monitored by scientists who studied the shifts in behaviour given the new roles. And of course things went wrong though not to the extent of some unmerited exaggerations in the film.
Set in present-day Germany, "The Experiment" opens with the a group of men registering for the research programme, having been lured in with the promise of 4,000 Deutsche marks upon the successful completion of the two-week experiment. Soon enough they are divided into 12 prisoners and 8 guards. One of the role-playing prisoners is Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu), a reported turned taxi cabbie who goes undercover in the hope of reviving his once accomplished career in journalism. Providing additional cinematic flavouring is the impulsive Berus (Justus Von Dohnanyi), a guard who manifests his pent-up frustration with a grudge against the outspoken Tarek. Though the rules of the experiment are explicit and well-known (anyone observed to use violence will be disqualified and their right to the reward money forfeited) Berus with his tyrannical form of leadership convinces other guards to use seemingly discrete methods to 'discipline' Tarek and his prison mates. Of dark amusement is the escalation of the torture that ensues when prisoners are forced to do push-ups for not finishing their meals, which continues with orders by the guards for them to clean toilets with their bare hands and then further still with tactics of gross humiliation and repeated beatings (all done whenever surveillance is compromised). These incidents do manage to raise a few pertinent questions about the human condition but, unfortunately, the taut psychological drama decides to take an unnecessary turn into cliché-county as the film enters a rather unbelievable third and final act.
We would like to buy into the contrivances especially because Moritz Bleibtreu (from "Run Lola Run" fame), our tormented hero, brings such a disarming charm to his role; and also due to writer/director Oliver Hirschbiegel's energetic direction and a visual eye for capturing the madness. It is very obvious how much he wants to reference the grim situations in the prison with that of times during the rise of Nazism: the story is set in Germany evoking the inherent political turmoil of the past; prisoners wear only dresses that carry identification numbers which they must use as names; the guards in their accessory-ridden uniforms representing Hitler's totalitarian regime. Despite such knowledgeable insights, the writers choose to dilute the scorching menace of the main story with an unnecessary romantic subplot and a conclusion that feels manufactured.
"The Experiment" was hailed upon release by critics and audiences worldwide for tackling an intriguing subject. Though not exactly the classic many make it out to be, this is a solid film that manages to find a comfortable middle ground between art and commerce. This is its most notable achievement but perhaps also its greatest failure. - Adnan Khan