The 2001 German film, Das Experiment, is a film that’s probably more relevant today than when it was first released.
The film deals with a social experiment. For a payment of 4,000 marks, volunteers are separated into two groups. One group will be prisoners and they will spend several days in a makeshift prison that’s been constructed in the basement of a lab. The other group will serve as guards. Though the “guards” have been told that they are not allowed to physically harm any of the “prisoners,” they are still under strict orders to maintain order in the prison. While the two groups play their roles, they’ll be observed by Prof. Thon (Edgar Selge) and his assistant, Dr. Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki).
If this premise sounds familiar, that’s because it’s based on something that actually happened in the United States in 1971. At Stanford University, a group of students were split into prisoners and guards, much as in The Experiment. In real life (and, in the film), both groups of students quickly adapted to their roles. In real life, the experiment was canceled after it became apparent that the guards were abusing the prisoners. In the film, the experiment continues even after it becomes obvious that things are getting out-of-hand.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is often cited as an example of both how quickly power can corrupt otherwise normal human beings and how, psychologically, people have a habit of assuming the habits of whatever group to which they’ve been assigned. It’s often seen as proof of how easily people can fall into an authoritarian mindset. That’s certainly what happens in The Experiment, in which the guards quickly go from being a bunch of fun-loving dudes (one of them is apparently an amateur Elvis impersonator) to being a bunch of power-mad sadists who justify their actions by saying that they have to maintain order no matter what. Even when ordered by Dr. Grimm to end the experiment, the guards assume that her objections are just a scripted part of the experiment and they instead escalate their behavior.
The main character in The Experiment is Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu ), a freelance journalist who also works as a taxi driver. Tarek agrees to take part in the experiment because he wants to write an article about the experience and make some extra money. Tarek is assigned to be a prisoner and given a new name: #77. What Tarek doesn’t know is that Prof. Thon specifically selected him because Thon feels that Tarek’s rebellious nature will lead to a conflict with Berus (Justus von Dohnányi ), the most severe of all the guards. It turns out that Thon is more correct than even he realizes. The participants in the experiment may start out joking and enjoying themselves but it doesn’t last. While Tarek seeks refuge in his fantasies and his memories of making love to the enigmatic Dora (Maren Eggert), the guards are thinking of new ways to psychologically abuse him. Perhaps not surprisingly, it all leads to torture, rape, and eventually murder.
The Experiment is an effective look at how quickly people can be seduced by their own power, one that is all the more disturbing for the fact that it’s taking place in Germany, a country full of people who should know where an authoritarian mindset leads. The first time I watched the film was in 2010 and it was difficult not to associate what happens to Tarek to what was going on in the war on terror. At the time, the film seemed heavy-handed but crudely powerful. Watching it last night, while under lockdown, the film felt downright prophetic. Watching the guards slowly go mad, it was hard not to question whether or not that’s what we have to look forward to in the future as more and more people take it upon themselves to police whether or not their neighbors are standing 6 feet apart from each other. If we’ve learned anything over the past two months, it’s that more people fantasize about living under an authoritarian state than are willing to admit.
The Experiment was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. It was his directorial debut. Three years after making The Experiment, Hirschbiegel would lunch a thousand memes by directing Downfall, a film about the final days of Hitler. If you want understand why Hitler lost the war, watch Downfall. If you want to understand how Hitler came to power in the first place, watch The Experiment.