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  • Writer's pictureYulia

A quick glance into the dynamics of power through Das experiment movie, a German film from 2001

What is power? It is something that can be given, taken, hold? What does it do to someone? Do you change because of it? Do you have to? All these questions and more go through my mind while I watch Das Experiment one more time. I have lost count of the times I’ve seen it since its release in the theaters and it always intrigues me, because I believe the answer to my questions must be in the film, and yet, they aren’t. Or maybe they are and I’m too naive, or blinded by privilege, or too obtuse.

scenes taken from das experiment movie

This film obsessed me because it hit too close to home. Did my grandfather...?

It is funny to me that, even though the actual experiment happened in the USA, the film was made here; and with such cruelty, such violence. I guess we all are still trying to get rid of our demons, some more than others. But is it so, is to so easy to succumb? Does it actually only take you to be told that you are in charge?

Our society is so fragile that 5 days is all that it takes to go into chaos apparently.

Oliver Hirschbiegel is the director who adapted the book based on the Standford prison experiment. I wish I could get that book, to understand how the process was made. Because I like the construction of the film, how he balances the story, how he adds a bit of hope, so one can endure it. If you haven’t seen it, here it is a brief synopsis:

In the newspaper there’s an ad: an experiment is going to be done and they are looking for test subjects; they’ll pay a good amount of money for it. What’s the experiment about? A simulated prison. It will last only two weeks; sounding this easy, it’s not a surprise they have a good number of contestants willing to be a part of it. The main character, Tarek Fahd, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, is a journalist, well a former journalist, who wants to get back his old job;, he realizes that there is a huge story behind this experiment: he knows the army has something to do with that and joins because of it. After no more than a week everything goes out of control.

The story is not presented in a linear way: it has two sets of flashbacks, one showing the interviews that the subject tests had prior to begin the simulation, and the other shows the romantic relationship between Tarek and a woman who is now gone. Once those memories end, we also have this woman present story, foreshadowing some events that are going to happen in the end of the film. Besides all these moments, we also have the POV of the scientists, and more interviews, but set in the present. The break in the narrative helps the rhythm, since in some scenes it gives the viewer a moment to rest and in others it slows things down, contributing to building up the tension.

What was the whole point of the experiment is not a mystery, and the professor who is in charge says it clearly: the goal was to study how long and in which conditions does submission to authority, violence and total alienation begin. With the army behind this, I wonder about the nature of the investigation, the reasons behind it, the use the results will have, the methodology, the resources, etc.

And there, I go again into the rabbit hole: all the rules given to the ones chosen as policemen came from, not just reality, but specific scenarios. Rules such as losing their names and becoming numbers, referring to the other subjects only as “Mr. Guard”, being forbidden to talk at certain moments, eating absolutely all the food, obeying every order given to them by the guards, or facing a punishment if broken: all of this has roots in the machinery that is the reality of different jails, and in the ways prisoners are treat during war time, and if I actually think about it, some of this rules, not all but some, are also rules that are followed in military training... Anyway, after the set of rules is given Tarek stopped being Tarek to became 77, and so did all the others chosen as inmates, who at the beginning saw all the mandates almost as a play, until they started facing consequences.

Number 77 is -since the beginning- trying to get derail the study, for the sake of his article, but we learn later that the scientists' plan was to push them to prove their point, instead of waiting for the subjects to act on their own. However, as we see with the interviews and the set up, they didn’t really need to be pushed into the violence, the whole origin of it is the structure of the system. There is a preconceived idea of how people should behave when they find themselves in certain positions, and we can see even in the answers given by the ones that end up being prison guards, and the jokes they made when they find out they have been chosen for this. We see this idea reinforced in the way the other guys are treated, and what rules they must follow at all costs, without questioning them, or adapting them. This structure becomes even more violent when we are talking about a prison system, in which the ones at the bottom of the structure are being punished.

The ones who question became a problem, because no one wants to lose their power, so the answer is violence: this way no one tries again. That’s what the actual result of the experiment is yelling at us, that’s what we refuse to see when we keep on thinking that others are less than us.

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