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The Experiment   B+

Senator Entertainment AG / IDP Distribution

Year Released: 2001 (USA: 2002)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writers: Don Bohlinger, Christoph Darnstädt, Mario Giodano (based on Giodano's novel Das Experiment: Black Box)
Cast: Mortiz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnányi, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Stephan Szasz, Maren Eggert.

Review by Jim Harper

In 1971 a group of academics at Stanford University, CA, began an experiment designed to simulate a prison environment and find out what the effects of this environment would be on the average individual, both as prisoner and guard. After less than a week, the experiment was called off. Those in charge were horrified by the trends that were emerging -- with the experiment only halfway through, the prisoners were depressed and humiliated by their treatment and the guards were beginning to display sadistic and cruel patterns of behavior.

This worrying experiment is the basis for Mario Giordano's novel and Oliver Hirschbiegel's film. Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) stars as Tarek, a taxi driver and sometime journalist. Sensing a decent story, he signs up to take part in a psychological experiment, being given the role of prisoner. Unsurprisingly, the situation quickly starts to get out of hand as the guards seek more and more extreme measures to deal with their unruly charges -- in particular Tarek, who takes great delight in baiting and belittling them, in an effort to give his final report some sensationalist appeal. He isn't prepared however for the experiment's eventual descent into torture and violence.

Often unpleasant and sometimes brutal, The Experiment is most definitely not feel-good Friday night fare. Hirschbiegel allows the film to start off in a light-hearted fashion, with a romantic encounter between Tarek and a bereaved woman who accidentally crashes into his taxi. The woman becomes the film's love interest, but her role is mercifully free from sentimentality. However, once the volunteers are inside the mock-prison, we take a turn into darker territory. The guards aren't allowed to use violence, so their punishments are primarily psychological -- at first, anyway -- and are all the more disturbing for it. In one of the worst scenes, Tarek is tied to a chair, has his head shaven, gets urinated on and is eventually tricked into remaining in the experiment. The scientists in charge won't intervene, because their chief maintains it is all for a scientific purpose.

Grim subject matter aside, The Experiment is a rewarding film. It's rare to find a film that balances sociological commentary with genuine excitement and interesting characters. It's not all perfect; Hirschbiegel has taken the easy route by making the main guard a thoroughly unpleasant character, thus making it easier to hate him. Some of the plot developments are not as logical as they could have been, so it's sometimes a little difficult to accept them. On the whole though, the director does an excellent job, and the film's visual look is very impressive, especially the contrast between blue-lit guards' quarters and the green-tinted prison cells, which is reminiscent of Michael Mann's Manhunter.

Original and genuinely disturbing psychological thrillers are in short supply these days, so if you feel you've been missing out, try and find The Experiment. The extreme violence of the last third might put some viewers off, but if you can make it through to the end you'll find the experience worthwhile.

Review published 02.05.2004.

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