Once upon a time in California, 20 college students were chosen for a psychological experiment in which they role-played prisoners and guards. After just four days, the behaviour of those involved had become so extreme that the scientists, fearing someone would be killed, brought it to a halt. This German film examines what might have happened if they hadn't.

Writing a film like this is a difficult task. How does one demonstrate, in just under two hours, the kind of slow psychological shifts which take place in a pressured environment over several days in which the test subjects have nothing else to think about? How does one make believable what few people were prepared to accept even when it happened for real?

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Das Experiment is remarkably bold and plain in its storytelling, never shirking from the details of its characters' suffering, so that it carries the viewer along despite its strangeness. Early on, various narrative devices are used, such as cuts to the interviews which the subjects underwent on application, and a surreal sequence in which the central protagonist, Tarek Fahd (otherwise known as Nummer sieb-und-siebzig), a journalist secretly infiltrating the experiment in search of a story, meets a woman at such a critical juncture in her life that a strong relationship is forged overnight.

As the story develops, however, the telling of it becomes more and more straightforward, building up tension which doesn't let go. It becomes very easy to accept what those involved will do to one another out of fear of humiliation or direct physical suffering. Everything is carried through to its logical conclusion. Power corrupts, and proves, for the corrupted, impossible to surrender.

Das Experiment is bleak in the extreme, but also emotionally gripping and, at times, intensely erotic. A fine ensemble cast provide strong, authentic performances which never compete for attention nor detract from one another, and the chemistry between them is impressive. Various devices are cleverly introduced and then allowed merely to exist, without anything hinging on them, where lesser writers would have tried to make a drama out of everything. This film finds all the drama it needs just by telling it straight. None of its characters are flawless nor supremely heroic. These are ordinary people pushed to extremes, with the result at once horrifying and fascinating. One of the best films of the year.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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Based on a true experiment where volunteers act out the roles of guards and prisoners with disturbing results. Out to own as part of the European Mavericks Heart Of Darkness box set.
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Read more Das Experiment reviews:

Martin Fitzgerald ****
Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Writer: Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstadt, Don Bohlinger, based on the novel Black Box by Mario Gieodano

Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnanyi, Friedrich Wildfever, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski, Andrea Sawatzki, Nicki von Tempelhoff, Timo Dierkes

Year: 2001

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany


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