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'Das Experiment' Comes With Its Own Set of Trials

September 18, 2002|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When director Oliver Hirschbiegel met with Disney executives a few months ago to discuss possible projects, he says, "I told them I really want to do a kids' movie. They didn't believe me. They thought I was joking." It's easy to understand why studio execs had trouble picturing the German filmmaker as a PG-13 kind of guy. Hirschbiegel, after all, is responsible for "Das Experiment," a disturbing look at human nature that may well qualify as the feel-bad movie of the season.

The premise of "Das Experiment": University professors recruit 20 ordinary citizens to assume the roles of "guards" and "prisoners" for a two-week psychology experiment.

Almost immediately, the guards begin humiliating the prisoners. Torture and murder ensue. Based on Mario Giordano's novel "Black Box," "Das Experiment" originally included the statement that it was "inspired by" the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, who declined to comment for this story but criticized the movie in a professional journal.

The reference has been removed from the film's credits.

"Das Experiment" star Moritz Bleibtreu ("Run Lola Run") recently joined Hirschbiegel in a Studio City deli to talk about reaction to their film in Europe.

"The way people would ask questions after they saw the picture," Bleibtreu says, "it felt like they were saying, 'Why are you showing me this? I don't want to know that I could possibly be like that.' They were shocked because it forces you to think about what you would do in that situation. People really seemed to personalize it."

Audience members fainted at one screening; others walked out. "That's not what we wanted," Hirschbiegel says. "We did not want people to faint. We don't want people to have nightmares after watching it."

Yet it's not surprising that "Das Experiment" has provoked extreme responses. Shot in a straightforward documentary style, the movie depicts characters being gagged, raped, urinated on, stripped naked and solitarily confined inside a vault-sized black box, stabbed, sprayed with fire extinguishers, clubbed and forced to wear "Sissy" signs.

"The book was very intense," says Hirschbiegel, a German television director who read "Black Box" in one sitting and decided to adapt the novel for his feature film debut. "It had believable characters and the whole situation was like a Shakespearean play in a way, if you look at these characters at the beginning and how their positions shift."

The most chilling power shift is embodied by Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi). At the start of the experiment, he's a quiet, middle-class family man assigned the role of guard. By Day 5, he's become an out-of-control sadist.

Bleibtreu, who played prisoner No. 77 in the film, found Berus' transformation plausible: "If you take somebody like Berus, who maybe is a good father and has a good job but who never had power in his life, and then you suddenly give him power, something he's never had before, of course he might misuse it. That can be a very tempting situation."

The sight of blond, square-jawed Berus abusing barely dressed captives and barking orders in German raises the question among some viewers: Did Hirschbiegel intend "Das Experiment" as a metaphor for Germany's World War II concentration camp mentality?

"No one believes me," the filmmaker replies, "but it never ever occurred to me that Justus might look like a Nazi. That's coincidental. Doing this as a German movie, of course, I was always aware of that and I did read books about behavior of the guards in the concentration camps, because I never understood how your loving family father would do these horrible things. But I didn't think of 'Das Experiment' as a study of fascism. I think it's a universal thing."

Hirschbiegel's research encompassed material on American prisons, British concentration camps during the Boer War and Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram's electric shock "obedience" experiments in the 1960s. He says it all led to a disheartening conclusion: People in positions of authority tend to abuse power in remarkably similar ways, regardless of national boundaries.

"The techniques of manipulating and controlling people and keeping them down seems to be the same all over the world," he says. "It must be something that just comes from the human mind, because it's not like the people who do these things all got together to exchange this information."

Most of "Das Experiment" was filmed during five weeks in the cellar of a Cologne cable factory. Cast members bonded on the mock prison set according to their roles in the film.

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