A would-be psychological thriller that’s equally crude in terms of psychology and thrills, Das Experiment updates the real-life early-seventies ‘Stanford prison experiment’ to modern-day Germany: under the observation and control of psychologists, twenty off-the-street volunteers spend two weeks as ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards.’ The former camp includes our somewhat obnoxious hero, undercover journalist Tarek (Moritz Bliebtreu), who has a high-tech camera hidden inside his glasses.

As at Stanford, it isn’t long before the ‘guards’ start manifesting violent, oppressive tendencies – especially the sweatily insecure Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), whom Tarek deliberately winds up in search of better ‘copy’, ignoring the cool-it advice of his taciturn cell-mate Steinhoff (Christian Berkel). It isn’t long before the Berus-Tarek conflict spirals out of control, with dire consequences for the ‘prisoners’, the ‘guards’ – and the watching psychologists.

Clearly intended as a topical cash-in the ‘Big Brother’ type TV shows popular across Europe, Das Experiment (adapted from Mario Giordano’s novel ‘Black Box’ by the author, working with Christoph Darnstadt and Don Bohlinger) clearly wants to be amped-up adrenalin ride, full of dramatic low camera angles, flashy editing, and pounding music. This is (perhaps) how Tarek views the world – Bliebtreu certainly exploits the role’s numerous opportunities for swaggering and showboating.

Occasionally Tarek seems about to crack under the pressure and leading us down an intriguing Shock Corridor route whereby a supposedly objective journalist bites off more than he can chew and suffers a major crack-up. But the movie isn’t much interested in psychology – Tarek has a long, dull speech about how he was locked in a cupboard as a child, setting up what we presume is going to be an episode of claustrophobic horror when he’s incarcerated in a solitary-confinement chamber (the ‘black box’ of the novel’s title). Hirschbiegel switches to an eerie green night-vision camera as we see Tarek apparently helpless inside the light-proof, sound-proof mini-cell. Handily for him, however, the guards have inadvertently left a screwdriver in there, and within seconds Tarek has levered his way out.

Moments like this make the film very hard to take seriously – plausibility is crucial, but the problems kick in worryingly early when one of Tarek’s pals asks to leave, only for his request to be turned down by the psychologists (boffins ludicrously kitted out in old-school white coats.) Thereafter each major plot twist is aided by the clunkiest of contrivances – such as the fact that CCTV cameras spy on all areas of the ‘prison’, except for a large underground bunker-type room which the guards use for their brutalities.

The film’s biggest misjudgement, however, is to keep switching away from the (occasionally quite tense) prison scenes to a parallel plot involving a supposedly ‘mysterious’ young beauty named Dora (wooden Maren Eggert), who met Tarek just before the experiment began. Tarek keeps himself going by flashing back to their steamy night of passion (a series of ham-fisted sequences) and we see Dora mooching around Tarek’s flat before working out where he’s gone and, in the slam-bang climax, turning up at the ‘prison’ with a gun.

This finale might just have worked if more time had been given to the film’s one interesting character, the Udo-Kier-ish Steinhoff, but instead it’s all too little too late. Das Experiment somehow got itself put forward as Germany’s official foreign-language entry at the Oscars. By the end of the film, you’ll be wondering just how bad the other candidates must have been.



Neil Young
11th May 2002
(seen 6th May, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)



Germany 2001 : Oliver Hirschbiegel : 116 mins