Das Experiment - a Review

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Das Experiment (“The Experiment”), directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and released in 2001, has been informally tagged as a German “psycho-thriller,” loosely based on the novel, Black Box, by Mario Giordano. Although the U.S. release of the movie includes the disclaimer that it is purely fictional and unrelated to any real events, its parallels to the “Stanford Prison Study” are hard to ignore. The original German release, however, offers no such disclaimer and, in fact, appears to build upon the connection, perhaps in an implicit effort to promote the film as “reality based.” The Stanford University study was initiated in 1971 by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology who recruited 24 paid, male volunteers to take part in a two-week research project that was advertised as “a study of prison life.” The investigative team randomly assigned half of the volunteers to roles as guards and the other half to prisoners’ roles, outfitting the participants accordingly. But, due to the increasingly violent tendencies of the “guards” (who soon began to humiliate and even torture the “inmates”), the experiment had to be terminated only six days after its start-up. Unlike the violence-laced plot of Das Experiment, no one was actually physically harmed in the Stanford study. Consequently, the film should be viewed as an extreme exaggeration of the original experiment or perhaps a “sensational prediction” of what might have happened if the experiment had been allowed to run its course. Nevertheless (and despite the disclaimer made in the U.S. version), a few scenes are derived from the actual study (e.g., the use of fire extinguishers to subdue the “prisoners”). Moreover, the fact that Hirschbiegel (the director) is generally known as a documentary filmmaker could contribute, perhaps, to the film’s perceived “authenticity.” On the other hand, the film’s real objectives, in terms of commercial appeal, are fairly transparent. By cranking up the sensationalism...
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