In August 1971, 24 male volunteers arrived at a prison in Palo Alto, Calif., to participate in a Stanford-backed psych experiment. The men were divided into two groups—12 prisoners and 12 guards—and told to live as captors and captives for 14 days. It was a disaster. Just six days in, the guards began torturing the inmates, and the presiding psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, pulled the plug.
This is great fodder for the movies. So, why did it take so long for Das Experiment (Samuel Goldwyn), a German film loosely based on those events, to arrive? Zimbardo guessed an adaptation would be troublesome because the audience would be forced to root for chaos. We’d automatically want the guards to get medieval and the prisoners to riot. In a sense, he’s right. Once it becomes clear that the director of the film, Oliver Hirschbiegel, isn’t going to pull the plug, we wait, and almost cheer, for the guards’ next ghoulish act. It’s a credit to the director that he has managed to take such grim material and make it into a halfway-smart thriller.
Hirschbiegel hitches his film to Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu, from 1998’s Run Lola Run), a failed journalist who thinks a magazine story about the prison experiments might revive his career. So, he sneaks in, gets tabbed to play one of the prisoners, and immediately spits putdowns at his captors. Bleibtreu is an ideal provocateur—balding, with thick-framed glasses and an impish smile. A lesser actor would have played Tarek as a tortured soul. Bleibtreu plays him as a pest.
Infuriated by Tarek’s taunts, the prison guards morph into sadistic creeps. Hirschbiegel raises the stakes by not so subtly turning them into Nazis: The guards hose down prisoners upon arrival; they make them wear white smocks with numbers on the left breasts; they shave Tarek’s head when he misbehaves; and when they spray the prisoners with fire extinguishers, the white mist curling through the bars recalls the gas chambers. Indeed, the blond, sneering Über-guard, Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), could be lifted from this film, pressed S.S.-style uniform and all, and dropped seamlessly into Schindler’s List.
Beatings? Rape? Murder? Check, check, and check. They’re all here, portioned out in small doses. And just as Zimbardo predicted, I waited eagerly for them, if only to see how far the guards would sink. Hirschbiegel is stingier with insight on why the guards, who are happy-go-lucky Teutonic lugs in the opening scenes, become predators. Part of it is their manic devotion to duty. They find that they’re good at what they do, and they take pleasure in it.
Most of the action takes place in a single cellblock, so the look is crucial, and set designer Uli Hanisch has created something weirdly terrifying. He starts by running away from every jailhouse cliché. His cell walls are made of flimsy white fiberglass; the bars are delicate, pencil-thin metal; the floor has the texture of a cheese grater—the whole thing looks like it was fashioned from materials bought at the Container Store. (However, Hirschbiegel shoots the jail in the conventional way: from the outside of the cells looking in. I’ve always thought prison movies would be better shot primarily from the inside of the cells looking out—even if you can’t always see the actors.)
But two-thirds of the way in, the script forsakes its high-concept roots and veers toward conventional thrillerdom. I’m not ruining anything by telling you that the prisoners rebel against their captors and that various villains get their comeuppance. The movie’s final scenes are flat-out silly, with endless chases through hallways, inconveniently locked doors, and baddies jumping out from the dark. Mercifully, we’re spared the mano-a-mano rumble between Tarek and Berus that’s hinted at in the script. But there’s an equally lame deus ex machina, which I won’t reveal, that’s straight out of the bottom drawer.
Here, I think, Hirschbiegel has missed a huge opportunity. He should have had the scientists halt the experiment at the halfway point and tell the subjects to switch roles: The prisoners would become the guards and the guards the prisoners. That twist would solve Zimbardo’s dilemma. Even if we root for violence in the first half of the film, what would we pull for in the second: forgiveness or revenge?