Basic instincts

A German study in prison sadism heads a lineup of great movies this week.

In between tiny-typed advertisements for egg donors and exotic models of the sort found at the back of this publication, German cabbie Tarek Fahd spies a post asking for participants in a psychological experiment. The study turns out to be a Third Reich-flavored take on the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of ostensibly average, well-adjusted men are divided into “guards,” who have all the power, and “prisoners,” who have none, and thrown in a mock prison for 14 days. (The psych professor behind the infamous 1971 experiment, Philip Zimbardo, protested the film’s explicit naming of his work, and reference to it has been removed from the U.S. release; it’s actually based on Mario Giordano’s SPE-inspired novel, Black Box.)

Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreau, who played Franka Potente’s panicked boyfriend in Run Lola Run) is selected for the experiment without much fuss. The plot thickens when he visits his former place of employment, a tabloidish newspaper, and offers the editors an exclusive. They outfit him with microscopic cameras to record what they hope will be salacious doings, and Tarek enters the two-week study with dual ulterior motives: not just to surreptitiously record what’s going on, but to instigate stuff worth recording.

Tarek is assigned to be a prisoner — perhaps the experiment’s directors sensed that he was a dissident from the start — and is thrown in a cell with two other fellows. One of them is a military man named Steinhoff (Christian Berkel) who is spying on the proceedings. Tarek and Steinhoff seem to be the only prisoners thinking outside the bars, both about the motivations for what happens on the inside and the ramifications of what happens without.

Things start out well for Tarek and company: They accord the guards little respect or obedience, baiting them not just to see how far they’ll go (the professors mandate there can be no violence) but to prove to themselves that this is not the real world. This is not a real prison, and as such they start out with roles reversed. And the guards, being laymen, have no idea how to handle such insolence.

Not surprisingly, they learn quickly that what men respond to best is the fist. Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), an outwardly meek man who reeks of passivity (and BO, as Tarek cruelly points out), is initially ostracized from his fellow guards and emerges as Tarek’s main adversary. Historically, it’s such quiet ones who take the humiliation dished out to them until their rage boils over into cold, calculating hatred — look at Columbine — and Berus’ vengeance knows no bounds once he gets rolling.

But Das Experiment is not just a fictionalized, faux-documentary account of the Stanford Prison Experiment. It works as a suspense film about what should have been a simple study gone horribly wrong, bombarding us with violent injustices facilitated by the age-old powerful-vs.-powerless dichotomy. As the crimes perpetrated by Berus and his complacent lackeys escalate in mental and physical bloodletting, we feel as fearful and doomed as the prisoners themselves. The film’s final act plays out with a sense of spiraling panic laced through a battle of instinct and wits between the power-mad Berus and heroic Tarek.

There’s added significance to a dramatization of the Stanford Prison Experiment being done by German filmmakers. The Holocaust-Gestapo-concentration camp allegory is a no-brainer — Berus looks like a poster boy for the Aryan Nation — but Das Experiment is more than an all-too-obvious comment on Germany’s ugly Nazi past. It’s also a comment on identity politics in post-Wall Germany, a political state plagued by troubles reconciling its reunified, “German” identity with the strangeness of its immigrant minority. It’s surely no accident that the film’s protagonist is a Middle Eastern-looking fellow and the only character in the film with a foreign-sounding name. He encourages his brothers in bondage to rise up against the power structure that keeps them down, demanding the civil rights accorded to those who hold the keys to their freedom (and, by extension, economic success as well).

Ignoring the subtext of Das Experiment, though, takes nothing away from what is a potent piece of cinema. The strange thrill of watching regular Joes turn into monsters and mice is an exercise in revulsion-tinged sympathy. And though there are scenes of violence and degradation that can be hard to take, they almost add to the desperate pace of a film that places us right in the middle of the action.


Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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