Political Film Society - Newsletter #144 - September 210, 2002

September 20, 2002


Das ExperimentWhy did so many ordinary Germans support Hitler and the Nazi persecution of the Jews? For some researchers, the explanation is rooted in personality factors resulting from childhood socialization. Social psychologist Kurt Lewin, in contrast, theorized that political and social forces impinging upon people override socialization differences. In the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram tested Lewin's theory, finding that experimental subjects blindly followed instructions from a professor to inflict what they thought was a severe electric shock on subjects in another room (though no such electric shock actually occurred). In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo set up an experiment in which some subjects were prison guards, others were prisoners, again to see whether situational factors would prevail over socialization factors in accounting for aggressive behavior; although he planned a two-week study, the experiment was called off in six days due to extreme stress on the part of many subjects. Aware of the experiment, Mario Giordano wrote a novel, Black Box, as an extreme fictionalization of the Stanford experiment. The film Das Experiment, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, brings the novel and the experiment to the screen. The protagonist in the film is Tarek Fahd (played by Moritz Bleibtreu), a taxidriver and former journalist who signs up for the experiment not only to earn the advertised 4,000 DM but also to write a news feature for 80,000 DM. Indeed, nearly all experimental volunteers are attracted by the apparent easy money. Professor Klaus Thon (played by Edgar Selge), principal researcher (and the film's mad scientist) on the project, has research assistants to maintain twenty-four hour closed-circuit surveillance. When the experiment begins, eight subjects are chosen to be guards, the remaining twelve are prisoners. The guards announce certain rules, and the experiment appears at first to be a joke. The first "misconduct" occurs when a lactose-intolerant prisoner refuses to drink milk, despite the rule that food at meals must be fully consumed. After some reflection, the guards decide that the appropriate punishment is to do push-ups, but Tarek quickly assumes leadership of the prisoners, urging them all to do push-ups.

The second control issue occurs when Tarek deliberately violates rules, and a prison riot seems imminent. At this point, one guard, Berus (played by Justus von Dohnànyi) assumes leadership, orders the prisoners to strip, and handcuffs Tarek to bars in a cell. Eager to assert his authority, Barus then taunts Tarek, who obliges with misconduct, and punishments escalate each day. Verbal humiliation does not satisfy Berus, who moves on to restraints, and later beatings. By the fourth day, two prisoners are hospitalized, and one is allowed to leave the experiment. Next, the guards overpower the academics to take full control. Berus places Tarek into a small black box that is completely dark inside, while tape is placed over the mouths of all other prisoners. One prisoner goes berserk, so guards tie him up to a chair, beat him, and leave him to die. Tarek, using a screwdriver that he somehow smuggled into his prison garments, manages to open the black box, one of his cellmates immobilizes a guard, Tarek gets keys from the guard, the prisoners are released from their cells, and they follow an escape route. The guards, led by Berus, then rush to stop the escape. When they meet, Tarek and his cellmate, a well-trained pilot, fight back successfully, and the ordeal ends. Throughout the experiment, Tarek maintains his sanity by recalling Dora (played by Maren Eggert), a woman whose car ran into his taxi just before the experiment began whom he took home to recover from the shock, whereupon they had sex, and she visits him in prison. The prisoner who died, however, had no friend on the outside. To relieve the tension of the film, the ending features the two lovers sitting on the beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands. Kurt Lewin's theory receives strong support in the film, which raises the question whether there is something inherent in human nature about the ability of strong leaders to dominate others, with fatal consequences for those who are weak, though the film gives little background information about the experimenters or the guards. Personality strength, in turn, appears to be a function of the strength of one's friendships; the alienated will go berserk in a tense situation, even with the support of prison buddies. Das Experiment, thus, raises fundamental questions about the dysfunctionality of the contemporary penal system, in which survival requires prisoners to become more hardened, thus promoting even more crime when prisoners are released. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Das Experiment three awards--raising consciousness for the need for greater democracy, for the need to improve human rights, and for the imperative of finding peaceful methods for resolving conflicts. MH