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September 18, 2002

A Full, Cruel Mouth Gives It All Away


Whenever the word "experiment" is used in a movie title, it's almost never the sign of a sunny-dispositioned musical comedy. As a harbinger of dread, the bountifully coldblooded "Das Experiment" doesn't disappoint; it's as unsettling as cafeteria meatloaf. It's hypnotic, a slick and well-told story that's all the more haunting because it's finally empty.

Its director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, has taken the axiom that power corrupts and shoved it into the express lane. A social experiment takes 20 men, recruited by scientists, and places them in an elaborately constructed mock prison.

In this piece of goal-oriented theater, 12 of the participants are made to play prisoners and the remaining 8 are guards. The condition given the guards is that they are not to use violence in motivating their charges. It's hard not to smile when the structure is laid out, and the clamminess is satisfying.

Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu), a down-on-his-tips cabdriver, enrolls in the "Experiment" in order to chronicle the situation for a magazine story. His role as exposé pilot is a secret, but Fahd's position as a prickly specimen with authority figure issues is not. He'd be trouble as a prisoner or a guard, and it's evident that he'll be made a prisoner because he's the kind of saboteur the narrative craves. With his full, cruel mouth, Mr. Bleibtreu seems to have been cast simply because he looks like a spoiler: he could have been selected by social scientists solely because he looks the part of an archetype. But the actor makes the man's compulsive destructive quality believable, and his plight is all the more painful since he met the right girl just before entering the "prison." He needs both the hefty fee paid for enrolling in the program and the accomplishment of getting the story in print. He's also determined to cause dissent. Fahd is established in brisk, simple terms as someone who generates his own conflicts, and Mr. Bleibtreu is the right tool for the job.

In having done so well at choosing the physical types, Mr. Hirschbiegel shows himself to have an inch-deep streak of cruelty and exquisite timing. Since we can all smell the punch line coming a mile away, the director's ability to inflict surprise and tension is key. He has made a picture that's like a reality show version of the HBO prison series "Oz," and the stripped-down-to-basic directing makes us all the more aware of the lurid chills; it's "Das Survivor."

The entertainment value of "Das Experiment" is based on the genetic predisposition toward bullying machismo, and the fact that the role of guard will ultimately pull anyone into the undertow. This kind of movie is bullying and manipulative, and it's hard to fight the feeling of being used. The picture is based on Mario Giordano's novel "Black Box," which I haven't read and which itself is taken from a real-life experiment conducted at Stanford University. And part of the roiling queasiness comes from the question of how much of this kind of behavior is inherent in the German psyche, though the movie is poised to comment on the natural inclination toward totalitarianism. "Das Experiment" is easier to shake off because it's empty calories trying to trumpet its bogus nutritional value, and the strain for social importance undermines the picture.

The movie does inspire one important question about social order, though: Is Germany the one European Union member that doesn't have a version of "Big Brother?"

"Das Experiment" is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for the amped-up physical and psychological violence that movie prisons inspire.


Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel; written (in German, with English subtitles) by Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstädt and Don Bohlinger, based on the novel "Black Box" by Mr. Giordano; director of photography, Rainer Klausmann; edited by Hans Funck; music by Alexander van Bubenheim; art director, Andrea Kessler; produced by Norbert Preuss, Marc Conrad and Fritz Wildfeuer; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Running time: 113 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: as the Prisoners, Moritz Bleibtreu (Tarek Fahd, No. 77), Christian Berkel (Steinhoff, No. 38), Oliver Stokowski (Schütte, No. 82) and Wotan Wilke Möhring (Joe, No. 69); as the Guards, Justus von Dohnanyi (Berus), Nicki von Tempelhoff (Kamps), Timo Dierkes (Eckert) and Antoine Monot Jr. (Bosch); as the Scientists, Edgar Selge (Professor Dr. Klaus Thon), Andrea Sawatzki (Dr. Jutta Grimm) and Philipp Hochmair (Lars); as the Others, Maren Eggert (Dora), André Jung (Ziegler) and Uwe Rohde (Hans).

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