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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jesse: “The Experiment” – Ein Disappointment

Strap in. This is a long one. But it’s about movies and psychology, so you’re lucky I stopped at all.

Reality: In the early ‘70s, Stanford University’s Philip Zimbardo conducted a now infamous study on the dramatic effect of human role-playing behavior. He simulated a prison environment using average university students that lasted only six days of the planned fourteen. Why? Because the illusion became real and the conditions that evolved for the prisoner students were so horrendous, Zimbardo was forced to call it off. The fascinating and horrifying results of this study impacted our understanding of human nature to such an extent that psychologists and researchers have referenced the Stanford Prison Study countless times since then. It’s inspired textbooks, novels, subsequent studies, and movies.

This brings us to the purpose of this post: evaluating the latest offering regarding this concept, Hollywood’s recent remake of the German film, “Das Experiment.”

I have to start by disclosing two facts:
1. I’ve seen “Das Experiment” several times. I was familiar with the Stanford Prison Study when I viewed it, which is what piqued my interest in the movie.
2. I have an IQ over 80.

And now, two things we can count on from Hollywood:
1.  The opening credits will be great.
2. The screenwriters, directors, and producers will assume the audience is incredibly dumb.

“The Experiment” certainly lived up to its obligation.

I was eager to see this film, and it began with promise. I desperately want to enjoy any bit of “entertainment” that can educate and/or illustrate an important psychological concept. The fact that our environment and circumstances can make even the most docile person become hostile is a frightening reality we can’t ignore. I really, really wanted to like it.

I didn’t.

The thing is, where “Das Experiment” relied on the actors to demonstrate the nuance of human behavior that could lead to such atrocities, “The Experiment” relied on a screenwriter smacking the audience over the head. The actual Stanford Prison Study required only human nature to escalate to the absurd, but “The Experiment” seemed to decide no one would believe reality. You could almost see the round table of writers scratching their heads as they tried to insert “Reasons” and “Explanations” into the script. “No one would believe this could happen. I know! What if we…?!”

The irony though? It did actually happen, and I believed the logical build a whole lot more in “Das Experiment” than I did in “The Experiment.” I don’t remember thinking once about the sequence of events that took our hero Tarek Fahd from his initial incarceration on day one to the jolting end when the bloody participants were left staring into the camera.  And yet, I found myself shaking my head several times as Travis and Barris faced off in “The Experiment.” It was almost like the movie didn't trust its own premise.

I also didn’t like how “The Experiment” neglected the roles of the researchers altogether. One of the other fascinating phenomena of the Stanford Prison Study was the fact that Zimbardo himself was so absorbed into the role-playing that he also began to lose perspective. An uninvolved colleague had to snap him out of his role and alert him to the reality of what they’d created. I’ll admit that “Das Experiment” does venture a bit into the unlikely with regard to the ultimate fates of the researchers, but it at least doesn’t ignore their roles and makes them participants in the process. In the actual study, there was no physical violence, and certainly no death. I have to believe that no researcher, regardless of the principles at play, would allow a study to escalate to the death of a participant without intervention. “Das Experiment” deals with that issue. “The Experiment” doesn’t. They tried to tack on a weak newscaster voiceover at the end, but the movie had already lost me by then. I couldn’t even tell you everything they said. It was a copout no matter what it was.

Now to the ending, and the most egregious insult of the film. Let me make this clear, I didn’t expect subtlety. I was hoping for it, but I didn’t expect it. Like I said, Hollywood tends to cater to the lowest common denominator, so explosions and breasts, yes, subtlety and nuance, no. But I also didn’t expect to have a,

“Hi, audience! This is what the movie was about. We were trying to make a point. Did you get it?” moment.

But alas, it did… Because we’re dumb. What an irritating contrast that was to the conclusion of “Das Experiment” where we were given only the probing, shocked, horrified, confused, accusatory stares of the actors. I remember thinking, “wow,” and sitting in silence for a moment as I absorbed the message at the end of that film. The remake? It’s hard to be poignant when you’re basically chucking road flares at your audience.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m no xenophile. I’m not one of those self-righteous film snobs who automatically gives a film three stars because it has subtitles. There are plenty of fantastic films that are in English. Heck, Hollywood can even claim responsibility for a few of them. I will watch anything that looks interesting regardless of its language, culture, or theme, and I judge it on its own merits. I once sat through a seven-hour miniseries on War and Peace – in Russian. Also, make no mistake: I think Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody are great actors. Anyone who’s seen “The Last King of Scotland” will never question Mr. Whitaker’s gift. My problem with “The Experiment” was not the acting by any means. It was the basic construction and lack of faith in the audience.

From “This movie is a remake of a movie based on a book that was inspired by the real-life Stanford prison experiment.”

Yeah, that about sums it up. If you want the best version, research the Stanford Prison Study. If you want an interesting take on the psychological principles at work in that experiment, check out 2001’s “Das Experiment.” If you want to waste 96minutes of your life, or you’re pretty sure you’re really dumb, rent 2010’s “The Experiment.”

But whatever you pick, make sure you have a strong stomach and are open to some tough self-examination.


  1. It really bugs me when film makers underestimate the intelligence of their audience. If I feel they are 'talking' to me like I'm stupid, then I generally stop listening.

    That sounds like an interesting study, I must check it out.

  2. Agreed. I can understand why they're tempted to do that for some film genres, but not for psychological thrillers. You have to assume that someone watching a psychological thriller is expecting to use his or her head and be challenged.