Combustible Celluloid
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With: Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus Von Dohnanyi, Maren Eggert, Christian Berkel, Oliver Stokowski, Edgar Selge
Written by: Don Bohlinger, Christoph Darnstädt and Mario Giordano, based on a novel by Mario Giordano
Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing situations, language, sexuality and nudity
Language: German, with English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 03/18/2013

Das Experiment (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Thinking Inside the Box

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It all began not far from The City as the famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, which inspired Mario Giordano to write his novel Black Box, which in turn inspired German director Oliver Hirschbiegel to make a film, Das Experiment. Strangely enough, the story works better in the film as set in Germany than it would have set at Stanford; the Nazi psychology inherent in a German tale lends even more danger. In Das Experiment, which opens today at the Lumiere, scientists invite a group of men to participate in a two-week experiment in a simulated prison environment. The men are divided up into "guards" and "prisoners," and then their behaviors are observed. The men playing guards get a little power-hungry and begin humiliating the prisoners, stripping them of their clothes, making them clean toilets and making them drink their milk -- even when they're lactose intolerant, as in the case of one prisoner.

Despite this gripping material, Hirschbiegel and screenwriters Giordano, Don Bohlinger and Christoph Darnst├Ądt, decide to add some fictional dramatics. Our hero, cab driver Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu), is a freelance journalist who hopes for a hot story by signing up for the experiment. Once inside, and cast as a prisoner, he decides to stir things up to generate a more interesting angle. The filmmakers also insert into the mix a military spy who keeps an eye on things. And that's not all. Every time a chunk of plot passes by, the filmmakers insert increasingly implausible elements, as if they didn't believe we would be interested otherwise. For example, though the scientists have set up cameras everywhere in the building to monitor the action at all times, they have neglected one particularly gloomy room -- so the guards can beat Tarek and urinate on his head without being watched. Another attention-grabbing scene is just baffling: At the end of a hard day of tormenting and haranguing, the leader of the guards, the Klaus Kinski-like Berus (Justus Von Dohnanyi), simply walks out the front door of the building, as if to go home. But if the guards were allowed to go home at night, wouldn't that completely change the conditions of the experiment? The scene is never explained and never repeated, but it casts a pall on the whole film.

In the film's final third, the filmmakers get plain silly. They bring out the "black box," a solitary confinement gizmo through which only air can pass. Some of the scientists in the little observation booth exclaim, "We agreed not to use the black box!" The ringleader insists it's just for show. But if you believe that, I also have a bridge for sale. Tarek is the one with the fear of enclosed spaces, so it's only natural he will end up in the box. Fortunately -- and here the film sinks to the ultimate in ridiculousness -- there's a screwdriver inside so he can dig his way out! For the most part, Hirschbiegel keeps the suspense iron-tight and moves things along at a good clip. And it helps that Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run and In July) is such an appealing actor. But the brutally silly sections of plot slice through the suspense like a razor, leaving the film deflated and in tatters. You leave feeling ripped off, like someone performed an experiment on your nine bucks and made it disappear.

Best Buy Co, Inc.