WINNER: TOP 25 LIBERTARIAN FILMS
A psychological experiment in which test subjects are divided into “prisoners” and “guards” spins out of control when the “guards” take their authority a little too seriously. [ Das Experiment credits: Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel / Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Berkel, Justus von Dohnanyi / 120min/ Drama, Thriller, Foreign Language/ In German with English subtitles/ Power Corrupts]
In 1971, Stanford University researchers conducted an experiment with shocking results. Student volunteers were asked to role-play as “prisoners” and “guards” in a mock prison situation for two weeks, as part of a study intended to explore the psychology of imprisonment. But the guards quickly became so sadistic, and the prisoners so stressed, that the experiment was aborted after just six days. In this fictionalized German version of the experiment depicted here, however, the overseeing academic authority is momentarily distracted, and so it goes further–to its logical barbaric conclusion.
At the center of the action is an undercover reporter who volunteers to participate and is assigned the role of prisoner. In yet another case of the Heisenberg principle gone awry, he deliberately provokes the guards, unleashing their worst side in order to sensationalize events for the sake of his story. As it happens, a couple of the guards are only too willing to become abusive and the rest are too timid to resist the course of events. Each abuse on the part of the guards leads to another rebellion on the part of the prisoners in an escalating sequence of violence, with ultimately murderous consequences.
Of course, this blue-grey angst-ridden thriller about abuse of power didn’t have to be made in Germany–the potential for power to corrupt is universal–but the sight of uniformed Germans barking orders auf Deutsch to cowed and beaten captives does have a certain familiar ring to it. Maybe if Pol Pot or Stalin had been so imprudent as to meticulously document their atrocities, Cambodian and Russian actors would be getting their fair share of evil character roles too.
Das Experiment is both credible and suspenseful. German audiences and film critics alike have lavished it with praise, both for its provocative story and for a fine performance by German cinema idol Moritz Bleibtreu in the leading role. It’s not exactly uplifting; but it is a bit wise, because it illustrates a profound truth the world could benefit by knowing better–that unconstrained power, even in the hands of the most ordinary people, is one of the keys to the gates of Hell.
“As a debut work it’s nothing short of astonishing, a director completely in control of the film and the viewer. This is cinema not for the faint hearted, where you have to go into the dark places first before you can see the light.”
–Eye for Film
“Das Experiment is told with panache and vitality from the first to the last shot. Moritz Bleibtreu, one of Germany’s finest contemporary actors, and Justus von Dohnanyi as the head guard deliver powerful performances.”
How to See It
More Films About: Power Corrupts
The Stanford prison experiment: Original footage
Wikipedia: The Stanford prison experiment
BBC: Stanford prison experiment continues to shock
Book: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Book: Power Tends To Corrupt: Lord Acton’s Study of Liberty
Book: How Power Corrupts: Cognition and Democracy in Organisations
Book: Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Perennial Classics)