Das Experiment (2001)

Starring Moritz (Taking Sides) Bleibtreu, Christian (Lassiez-passer) Berkel, Oliver (U-571) Stokowski, Wotan (Anatomy 2) Wilke Mohring

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Throughout the course of running a horror website, I’ve heard about movies that are so damn good they’re almost universally loved by everyone that sees them. Ring was one of those movies. So was Versus. And as of late 2001, word starting going around about Das Experiment, which for me started when Mitch Davis mentioned it during our interview with him at Fantasia Fest last year. I’ve kept my ears open ever since.

As luck would have it, a story we did on the movie on the site got the attention of the right people, and I managed to get my hands on a copy. You better damn well believe I was happy, and now that I’ve seen I know it was worth the wait.

Tarek Fahd (Bleibtreu) is a simple man. He drives a cab for a living, has a new girlfriend, and believes nothing happens without a reason. When he sees an ad in the newspaper looking for people to participate in a “prison simulation” experiment, he decides to sign up. Because it seems interesting and mind-expanding? No, because he also used to be a journalist for a big-city newspaper, and this story looks to be huge.

The rules for the two-week experiment are simple. 20 men will be divided up, 12 into prisoners, 8 into guards. The guards are to maintain order among the prisoners without the use of violence, and everyone is free to quit at anytime. By doing so, however, they will forfeit their payment of 4000 marks (about $2000). At first it’s a somewhat jovial environment, with the prisoners goofing on the guards and trying to elicit laughs, but the guards are told from the get-go that the success of the experiment depends upon them taking their job seriously.

You’d be amazed how quickly things go wrong…

I’m not going to get any further into the plot, because that’s about all I knew about it when I watched it for the first time, so I know there are a lot of surprises. I will tell you that the story is based on Stanford University’s 1971 Prison Experiment (you can find more about that here but I warn you, it may give away some pieces of the movie that are best left alone).

What I will tell you, however, is that Das Experiment is not really a horror movie in the traditional sense. It’s a horror movie for those that consider films like Jacob’s Ladder horrific (though it’s very different). It’s psychologically terrifying, which is often far more effective than any amount of blood on the screen.

The performances turned in by the principal cast are absolutely excellent, especially that of Bleibtreu, who deserves the German equivalent of the Academy Award after the range he shows here. Going from a normal, somewhat overly hip guy to what he turns into at the end is enough to make most “name” actors cringe. As you can imagine, a lot of psychological ranges occur when put into a situation such as a simulated prison environment, and boy do they ever. This is the kind of movie that hinges on the performances turned in by the cast, and the producers did an amazing job of getting the right people cast in the right roles.

I don’t want to say too much more about Das Experiment, but just trust me when I say that the damn thing is amazing. Go in expecting whatever you want, chances are you’re going to get something that much better. You can get the film on DVD here in the states now, where it was released as The Experiment (a translation), so if you spot it don’t let the really boring cover lure you away from it.

If German is your thing, or you have a lot of patience for translated sites, I would highly recommend checking out the movie’s ultra-cool official site right here.

4 out of 5

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