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3 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Experiment, The
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by Andrew Howe

"Those wacky Germans are at it again"
4 stars

If I was a psychologist I’d advise anyone suffering from depression to avoid German films, and Das Experiment (The Experiment) does nothing to convince me otherwise. It’s a dark testament to the corruption born of absolute power, interspersing its thought-provoking subject matter with enough interpersonal conflict and mid-level violence to prevent it from becoming the cinematic equivalent of a scholarly but soporific research paper.

Adapted from a novel by Mario Giordano (which was loosely based on the real-life Stanford Prison experiment conducted in 1971), the film opens with cash-strapped Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu) answering a newspaper advertisement for test subjects. 4,000 DM is all the incentive he needs to join nineteen other participants in a mock prison environment, with their number split evenly between prisoners and guards. To earn the money they have to live their roles for 14 days, acting within the rules of the game while cameras record their reactions for posterity. Both sides initially treat it as a bit of a lark, but over time the conflict between Fahd and Berus (Justus von Dohnànyi), a control freak recruited for his psychological dissimilarity to Fahd, threatens to boil over into humiliation and violence which is anything but simulated.

Bleibtreu is best known for his memorable performance as Lola’s boyfriend in Run Lola Run, and his efforts here suggest he should be following co-star Franka Potente down the road to international stardom. His intensity makes it easy to credit Fahd’s role as a rabble-rouser, but he’s also an immensely charismatic performer, an asset which is critical to enabling the initially self-serving Fahd to retain our support. Von Dohnànyi is equally laudable as the villain of the piece – his character bears a marked psychological resemblance to Percy Wetmore from The Green Mile, and Berus’s transition from a petulant exponent of petty evil to a deeply unsettling psychopath keeps the tension running high. Most of the supporting players fade into the background (it’s difficult to adequately canvass twenty characters in two hours), but Oliver Stokowski rises above his limited screen time with a deeply affecting portrayal of a likeable soul who signs up to help realise his dreams and ends up trapped in a nightmare.

With the exception of a handful of exterior scenes that exist solely to juxtapose freedom with repression, the lion’s share of the film is shot in the three-man cells constructed in the basement of an office building. It’s a claustrophobic environment, lowering the prisoners’ resistance by denying them privacy, personal space, natural light and fresh air (even the “exercise yard” is a fully enclosed concrete bunker), and the sparse but effective production design invests the film with a mounting atmosphere of oppression.

The scriptwriters canvass a number of issues (valuing scientific data above the well-being of the subjects, personal values versus the lure of the mob, and a vague comment on reality television), but the main theme is the extent to which a change in the external environment can undermine our ingrained morality and adherence to cultural norms. The purpose of the experiment is never entirely clear, but it’s presumably designed to study the effect of denying freedom and conferring authority on relatively normal human beings. That’s not exactly cutting-edge psychology (plenty of real-life prisons could provide the relevant data), but its status as a simulation provides another layer of intrigue. All of the prisoners are free to forfeit the money and check out any time they want, while the guards have nothing to gain by extending their role beyond a caretaker capacity. Fahd initially stirs things up because he’s planning to write an article on the experiment, but over time everyone’s insecurities and psychological flaws rise to the fore, and by the halfway point their isolation sees them acting like refugees from Lord of the Flies.

Asking yourself what you would do in a similar situation is an intriguing exercise, so the film rises or falls on whether the participants’ gradual degeneration is a believable consequence of the experiment. The actions of the prisoners accord with what we know about the usual flight-or-fight reactions to oppression, but the guards are another matter. There can be little doubt that placing power in the wrong hands can have disastrous results, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone participating in a mere simulation would submerge his moral compass to the extent that he’d participate in some of the group’s less-palatable activities (you could point to the generally deplorable behaviour of Big Brother contestants, but to the best of my knowledge nobody’s ever taken a nightstick to somebody’s skull).

Any question of realism goes south in the final act, which closes the film with a series of events that are impossible to credit. However, I’m fully prepared to forgive the scriptwriters this sin - the narrative maintains our interest for the first ninety minutes by building to a crescendo, and failing to close with a gripping and powerful finale would have left most viewers feeling vaguely cheated. It certainly doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but giving the audience what they want is just as valid as defying our expectations.

The Experiment’s innovative concept and committed cast make issues of budgetary restrictions redundant, and accusations of selling out during the denouement are deflected by its considerable contribution to the film as a viewable commodity. The Germans appear to have cornered the market on pensive products, so if you don’t mind feeling their pain you’ll be privy to an intelligent film that might just get you to thinking about which side of the fence you’d fall.

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originally posted: 09/25/02 19:18:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/30/18 Arjan great acting, implausible plot 3 stars
10/24/06 AJ Muller Disturbing and intense work - don't know if I "liked" it, but sure as hell respect it 4 stars
11/21/05 ken madness!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
9/25/05 K. Sear Starts out ver cliche but steadily ramps up until the atmosphere is rather chilling. 4 stars
6/13/04 mans0n really nice job. one of the best films ive seen in a while. 4 stars
3/04/04 nniedzielski THIS is what a thriller should be like -- smart, terrifying, and, how about, thrilling 4 stars
8/10/03 Danny Eltringham This film really needed to be made. I'm glad that it was not at all a dissapointment. 5 stars
10/10/02 mr. Pink Thrilling! But it has a few flaws..... 4 stars
10/03/02 Big B good stuff. moritz is awesome again. 4 stars
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  18-Sep-2002 (R)
  DVD: 01-Jul-2003



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