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 hyper-masculine mind game spins even further out of control.
When taxi driver and 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 OK 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 divided randomly 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” doc, 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-crit 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.
The cramped setting of Das Experiment—a dark jailhouse with the sparse rendering of a video game environment—serves as an apt pressure cooker for the movie’s white-knuckled test of wills. The opposite visual effect is achieved by Siddhartha, Conrad Rooks’s sensuous and unhurried 1972 adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s cult novel. Shot among the rolling hillocks of northern India, Sven Nykvist’s golden-hued cinematography perfectly suits Hesse’s mind-expanding narrative of Buddhist enlightenment. Far more well crafted than Rooks’s 1966 frenetic all-star counterculture revue Chappaqua, Siddhartha stars a young, dashing Shashi Kapoor as the eponymous proto-Beat wanderer, a prodigal son who rejects his life of aristocratic leisure to search for spiritual bliss. In a more oblique manner than Das Experiment, Rooks’s Vietnam-era film likewise critiques modern penchants for suffering and violence. As such, it provides an old-school adagio counterpoint to Das Experiment‘s fast-forward PlayStation tempo.