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Film / Das Experiment

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Das Experiment is a German Psychological Thriller directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and starring Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnányi and Christian Berkel.

Loosely based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, a group of ordinary people are recruited for a social experiment to test human propensities for control and defying control. The participants are selected into two groups of Prisoners and Guards, with the latter being told to maintain order by any means necessary absent direct forms of violence. It doesn't take long for the experiment to escalate beyond what the scientists intended.

It was loosely remade in the U.S. as The Experiment in 2010, starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker.

This film provides examples of:

  • Attempted Rape: Eckert, one of the guards, tries to rape the female scientist after previously having forced her to strip in front of him. He is interrupted when Prisoner #77 escapes from the Punishment Box.
  • Barehanded Blade Block: A variation. The main character stops a knife blade by... gripping it with his hand! It sounds as painful as it actually looks, and the attacker is as perplexed as the defender by the unexpected move. It's made even worth because he apparently can't just open his hand again, so he has to pull the knife out from his closed fist, effectively slicing his palm and fingers even more.
  • Becoming the Mask: The film is about eight regular men acting as prison guards becoming too overzealous with their roles.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Berus, an introverted guy at first, later turns out to be a very nasty piece of work.
  • Big Bad: Berus, the sadistic security guard in charge.
  • Break the Cutie: Bosh proves to be the most reluctant of the Guards, as he helps #77 reach out to Dora, which gets him beaten up by the other Guards when they find out, and thrown among the Prisoners as #53. When he comes across a gun-carrying Eckert, who seemingly shot the head scientist dead, Bosh can't take it anymore and furiously kills him with a fire extinguisher, before sitting down next to the body unresponsively.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Upon standing up for #77 after he's locked in the black box, Prisoner #82 gets horribly beaten up by the Guards, who then strap him down to a chair and tape his mouth, unintentionally suffocating him to death when his bloody nose dries up later. We get to see the poor guy die slowly as his suffocated breaths get weaker and weaker.
  • Drunk with Power: Deconstructed, in that it's shown that both the Guards and the Prisoners ultimately contribute to the escalation. At first the Guards limit themselves to minor abuses such as forcing #82, who's lactose intolerant, to drink his required dosage of milk, but when the prisoners start to riot (largely because of prodding from Prisoner #77, who's a plant from a newspaper looking for a good story) they start resorting to increasingly violent methods to keep control over them. By the end the Guards are beating the Prisoners into comas, keep the junior scientists who are supposed to be monitoring the experiment captive so they can't interfere, and one of them even tries to rape a woman from the staff.
  • Elvis Impersonator: Eckert works as an Elvis impersonator on the outside, which he demonstrates during his initial interview.
  • Force Feeding: The Guards are given very specific instructions that the Prisoners are to finish their meals. However, one prisoner is lactose intolerant so he cannot consume the standard-issue milk cartons without getting sick (implying that the Professor in charge of the experiment either Didn't Think This Through and never asked the candidates about any allergies or he deliberately inserted this problem to see how the subjects would respond). The guards decide to hold the prisoner down and force the drink down his throat.
  • Going for the Big Scoop: In the nutshell, the experiment goes pear-shaped because Tarek Fahd (Prisoner #77), the newspaper spook looking for a good story, would continuously piss off the guards (who at that point just wanted to get paid) until they've had it with him. And it only went downhill from there...
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: The plot is based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, but goes further. Within just a few days the guards are terrorizing and humiliating the prisoners to keep order, right up to abusing their position of power to commit murder and rape. The head scientist was even aware how quickly the experiment was escalating, he just chose to ignore it For Science!.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Later reviews of the study revealed that both the guards and the prisoners were coached into their roles and many instances of cruelty were the subjects acting, making it highly unlikely that this would have happened. Justified, in that this wasn't known when the film was made.
  • Hollywood Blanks: Averted. What many people tend to ignore is that blanks can be downright lethal if the calibre is big enough, or if fired into a sensitive part of the head. Professor Thon is almost killed by a blank accidentally shot near his face, and shortly after Dora uses the same gun to wound a guard in the belly when he comes at her.
  • Knight Templar: Berus, and by extension, almost all the other guards, feel that any abuse of the prisoners is justified so long as it will help maintain order.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The film emphasizes the Nazi-like aspects of the guards' behavior. In case the point isn't obvious enough, their leader, Berus, actually resembles a blond Hitler. At one point, one of the prisoners even calls him a Nazi. The experiment itself, along with the Milgram Obedience Experiment, were originally devised as an attempt to understand what would drive otherwise good people to commit the atrocities that the Nazis perpetrated during World War II.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: Bosh furiously kills Eckert believing that he just shot Professor Thon in the head.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Professor Thon is lead scientist behind the experiment, who chose to turn a blind eye on the guards' out-of-line behaviour for the sake of his research. The ending even outright states that the damage done by the end could have been prevented, had the experiment been aborted in time.
  • Punishment Box: Prisoners who are a routine problem are locked inside a safe. Prisoner #77 is locked inside in the climax when the guards have gone completely Drunk with Power, but he manages to break free on his own eventually.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Berus, the guard who spearheads the abuse of the prisoners, nevertheless seems to object to Eckert lecherously forcing the female scientist to strip herself in front of him and hands a uniform over to her and tells her to join the rest of the prisoners. He's occupied elsewhere when the actual rape attempt happens, however.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Even though it's a blank, Eckert could've potentially blown Professor Thon's brains out for real if it wasn't.
  • Shameful Strip: Dr. Grimm, who's being held captive by the guards is forced to strip down by Eckert, who then comments on her... grooming habits. Berus objects when he walks in on this, and gives her some clothes to cover herself up.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Before attempting to rape Dr. Grimm, Eckert plays Marianne & Michael's Volkstümliche Musik song Wann Fangt Denn Endlich D'Musi An on the speakers of the prison to cover up the noise. It gets worse when the jolly song keeps going during the useless attempts at reviving #82.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: At the end of the final confrontation, #38 almost strangles Berus for causing #82's death, before #77 talks him out of it.
  • Token Good Teammate: Bosch is the only prison guard that doesn't indulge in his colleagues' sadistic pastimes, and even tries to help the protagonist with the letter to his lover. Unfortunately, his position doesn't hold up too long after that...
  • Token Evil Teammate: Meanwhile, Eckert is clearly the worst among the guards. Having joined the experiment entirely for fun, he's introduced by lecherously staring at Dr. Grimm's legs. Eckert proves to be the most sadistic and depraved guard in the entire team, delighting in his newfound power the most. Unlike the other guards, who are more or less completely deluded and believe that they're doing the right thing, Eckert is The Hedonist who only cares about personal amusement, finally crossing Moral Event Horizon when he tries to rape Dr. Grimm. Fittingly, he's the one guard that bites the dust at the end of the film.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: One of the prisoners (#38) is actually an agent for the German Federal Police, who have been investigating Dr. Thon for possible human rights abuses.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Dr. Grimm kicking a handcuffed Eckert for everything he did to her, Bosh when he bashes his head with a fire extinguisher, and #38 when he begins to strangle Berus, #77 stops him in time before he regrets it.