A keen, gripping psychodrama with unsettling real-life underpinnings, Das Experiment marries German, post-fascist soul searching to the fast-paced, voyeuristic pop thrills of reality TV. Though uncredited as such, the film cribs its plot from the Stanford Prison Experiment, a 1971 study in which male college students role-played guards and inmates. Stanford's projected two-week incarceration was terminated after six days due to its unexpectedly severe mental effects on both subjects and researchers. In director Oliver Hirschbiegel's fictionalized update, the hypermasculine mind game spins even further out of control.
When taxi driver/ex-journalist Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu of Run Lola Run) answers an ad seeking participants for a mock-lockup research project, he smells an investigative comeback. After squeezing a reluctant okay from his former editor, he digs up a pair of implausibly powerful spy-camera glasses and joins the study. Tarek and 19 other everyday schmoes—including a newspaper-kiosk operator, an airport clerk and an Elvis impersonator—are randomly divided into guards and prisoners. The guards don police uniforms; the prisoners wear nothing but paper-thin tunics and flip-flops. Identified only by numbers, the inmates must address their handlers as "Mr. Prison Guard" and otherwise obey orders or risk whatever punishments the guards devise.
At first, both teams fall into place with jocular ease, until prisoner Tarek quickens the drama by fomenting Attica-like rebellion. By day two, the guards turn to humiliation as a control tactic, spraying the inmates with fire extinguishers, then forcing them to strip naked. Faster than you can say Saló, the guards, now led by the prissy, Teutonic Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), bind Tarek to a chair with masking tape, shave his head and take turns pissing on his face—and this not even at day four. "I'm not sure if I should hit him or fuck him," says one blond jackboot, just in case the film's precarious tip into the aesthetics of scheisse porn isn't already clear. (In true German fashion, defecation and stink are recurring motifs: Tarek taunts Berus about his body odor, tells a story about childhood pants-peeing, and is forced to clean toilets with his tunic, then wear it.)
Das Experiment is only the most recent example of an actual study of authoritarianism explored cinematically. Others include Stanley Milgram's controversial 1962 "shock machine" documentary, Obedience, and 1981 TV movie The Wave, in which California teens form a high school mini-Reich. The question of how Nazism gained power is the obvious common thread through these films, and each is concerned with systemic discipline and punishment. Adding a contemporary media-critic spin, Das Experiment explores the inherent cruelty of Big Brother, Survivor and other social-endurance peep shows: the prison is tricked-out with surveillance cameras, Tarek captures clandestine footage with his glasses-cam, and the scientists tape Real World-style one-on-one confessionals. But after the film's ultraviolent finale (set to the tacky beats of synth-pop volksmusik), one wonders whether this sharp bit of fascinating fascism provides a true analysis of television's new mean streak—or simply an engaging indulgence in same.