ometimes science tells us more than we really want to know. Though in these troubled times we cling to the notion that we as a species are basically decent and moral, there is that sneaking suspicion that we are perhaps clinging to a pipe dream of civilization and that the truth is something best left to itself. THE EXPERIMENT, a fictionalized account of actual research done on the subject, is at best unsettling, at worst damning, confirmation of our worst fears.
Based on the novel BLACK BOX by Mario Giordano, The story starts with Tarek, an ex-reporter who makes his living driving a cab after doing something unfortunate back in his journalism days. We never find out exactly what, but the word stress comes up during an oblique discussion. In any case it was apparently enough to make his ex-editor more than a little wary when Tarek shows up one day with a newspaper ad asking for volunteers for an experiment and a pitch to write an undercover story about what the experiment is like. Played by the charismatic Moritz Bleibtreu of RUN LOLA RUN fame, Tareks ability to worm his way back into the editors good graces, wary though he his, makes sense.
The experiment itself involves randomly dividing a group of male volunteers into prisoners and guards, place them in a simulated prison, and watch what happens. Sound like a piece of cake, even though the researchers remind the men time and time again that the prisoners will be giving up anything resembling civil rights for the duration. Certainly the men chosen, a teacher, a newspaper vendor, and an Elvis impersonator among them, seem innocuous enough, wanting to take part because of the money or out of curiosity. Of course, we know its all going to go wrong, or there wouldnt be a movie here, its just a matter of seeing how. And that scenario, as it plays out, is at once fascinating and horrifying.
Tarek is chosen to be a prisoner. He like the other prisoners, though wearing knee-length tunics with no underwear and flip-flops for the duration, take it all less than seriously. For them, its a kind of day camp with funny clothes. For the men chosen as guards, though, its different. As soon as they put on the uniforms, and especially the paraphernalia handcuffs, billy clubs, and the like start carrying themselves just a little bit differently. Theres a swagger that should tip off everyone from the doctors observing the experiment to those of us in the audience that things are going to get very ugly. The only surprise is how quickly the situation devolves.
From day one, the guards egg each other on to keep the prisoners in line, taking a perverse pleasure in enforcing every rule to the hilt. Even forcing a man with lactose intolerance to drink all his milk because the rules say all meals must be eaten up with no leftovers. They throw themselves into enforcing these rules with a pleasure that goes beyond wanting to please the researchers who are observing everything. This is sheer delight in being able to command other people, people who are powerless to stop them. By day two, the prisoners, faced with this sort of aggression, become at first bemused, then sulky, and then openly rebellious.
Tarek, to the delight of the researchers, quickly becomes the ringleader, testing how far he can push the guards. A move he will come to regret, but not as much as the researchers themselves, who fail to realize that things have gotten out of hand, they become so entrenched in the experiment that the subjects stop being people so much as bipedal lab rats with verbal skills. On the contrary, they praise the guards ingenuity in turning from pushups to humiliation to maintain order, with the mousiest of the bunch, Berus, played with a chilling turn of personality by Justus Von Dohnanyi, becoming a sadist to make any Nazi proud. Though the guards cannot actually hit any of the prisoners, they find more and more perverse ways of subjugating the prisoners so that by day two, things are coming a boiling point of violence that no one can control.
By day three, no one is playacting anymore. Nighttime raids on prisoners include the physical abuse that is forbidden, though carefully played out beyond the prying eyes of the researchers cameras. Confronted by one of them, Berus calmly explains that he is doing his duty, keeping order and that is the only thing that matters. A mere hop, skip, and a jump from the Nuremberg refrain of I was just following orders.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel uses a stark and spare style to depict the action, not unlike the dispassionate way the researchers observe the chaos. His use of actors is similar in style, with breakdowns sudden and savage in contrast to the intermittent quiescence that only serves to heighten the tension of the situation. Bleibtreu in particular shows a remarkable range from cocky to cowed.
The only flaw is an ancillary story of the woman Tarek met the night before going into the fake prison. The flashbacks to his night of romance with her make for a properly piquant counterpoint to his present situation, but her shaky emotional state, is she suicidal or isnt she, doesnt quite mesh with the film. Perhaps its supposed to tell us that for all of us sanity and the ability to play well with others is tenuous at best, though why we wont get that from THE EXPERIMENT itself, I cant fathom.