E: Das Experiment (Hirschbiegel, 2001)

Released: 2001
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Genre: Thriller
Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Berkel, Justus von Dohnányi
Rating: USA – R; UK – 18; Germany – 16

So I watched the trailer for this – and I figured I probably needed to start putting the film ratings on these posts. Between this and the fact that I learnt the word Erniedrigung (humiliation) from this film, well. I guess that lets you in on the kind of film it’s going to be.


Yeahhh, it’s an interesting one. The summary (from IMDB, of course)For two weeks, 20 male participants are hired to play prisoners and guards in a prison. The “prisoners” have to follow seemingly mild rules, and the “guards” are told to retain order without using physical violence. Anyone who’s heard of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment might be feeling a little tug of familiarity right about now – and that’s fair. This film is actually based on a book (Black Box by Mario Giordano) which is based on that experiment, but the essentials are similar enough – and though the outcomes are (naturally) a little more exaggerated in the film, their basis in the experiment can be seen, too.

I really, really enjoyed this film. I’m going to get onto why in a moment, but I thought it was fascinating and very engaging. It is a bit brutal at times – though that is rather the point – and it feels like it was made earlier than it was, but it’s a very good film, especially if you’re interested in social experiments and that sort of thing.

Things I liked:

  • the characters are just so interesting. Obviously, since it’s based on a book that’s based on a social experiment; they have to be – but each of them (the main characters at least; the film is two hours long but we don’t spend that much time with all twenty) has something different to offer. Tarek (Bleibtreu) has his own motives for participating in the experiment and this adds an extra element to his actions, sharply in contrast to his cellmate, Steinhoff (Nr. 38, Berkel). Tarek’s confrontations with the guard Berus also serve to highlight the different natures of both men – and Justus von Dohnányi, who plays Berus, does a stellar job of showing us how he’s pushed over the edge and begins to take control.
  • the film is brutal, but not to the point, I think, where it’s a detriment to the story – and it’s kind of a necessity. The whole reason the Stanford Prison Experiment is so infamous is because the guards went power-mad and it had to be shut down way ahead of what had been planned. The film shows that, as well as showing the dangers for the researchers, who also end up sucked into the experiment and face no small amount of peril. Like I said, if you’re interested in psychology at all, it’s a fascinating film.

Things I disliked:

  • not a dislike as such – but there’s a whole side-plot with Tarek and a woman he meets named Dora (Maren Eggert) which just feels a little strange. Ultimately, she helps him out, but I didn’t find it all that realistic and her role could have been cut without it really being too detrimental to the film. I think it’s supposed to highlight something about Tarek’s psychological condition regardless of the prison experiment, but it was very strange to me.

I think my favourite scene was towards the end, when Tarek and Steinhoff face off against the remaining prison guards. It was nice that there was a kind of wrap up, too; this is definitely not a film that would benefit from any loose ends. My favourite quote is a little darker than that, as it comes from the sadistic guard Berus:

Ich habe mal gelesen, dass man in solchen Fällen die Kontrolle zurückgewinnt, wenn man…über Erniedrigung.

I read once that you can win back control in such situations if you… [use] humiliation.

Ugh, he’s so creepy.

But, anyway! I’d give this film a solid 8.5/10. It’s not for the faint of heart and you probably have to be in the right mood to watch it, but it’s a gripping film that has a very interesting message.

(Oh, and if you’re interested, there’s a US remake of this film that went direct-to-DVD in 2010, called The Experiment. It stars Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker and though it has lower ratings than this version, it doesn’t look terrible. It was still rated R though.)

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