An Experiment Goes Very Awry

New York Times/September 15, 2002

In "Das Experiment," a psychological thriller from Germany opening Wednesday in New York, a journalist played by Moritz Bleibtreu (the boyfriend in "Run Lola Run") goes undercover and answers an ad for male volunteers to act as the guards and inmates of a mock prison for a two-week behavioral research project. Assured that there will be no violence, the men are told that in exchange for being well paid, they will be locked in for the duration. Needless to say, the experiment spins out of control, and violence becomes the order of the day.

You don't have to be a European history major to see "Das Experiment" as an allegory for the rise of the Third Reich - and by extension for any authoritarian regime, including the kind that can take over a school playground. But what's striking is how detailed the allegory is. By movie's end, all the players are on the board, not just sadistic bullies and their shell-shocked victims, but treacherous intellectuals, mesmerized foot soldiers, resisters both wily and naïve and every shade of collaborator, from the maliciously active to the passively disengaged.

Most viewers can find their reflections in the mirror the movie holds up (including journalists, who won't be flattered). One who did and isn't happy is Philip G. Zimbardo, president of the American Psychological Association. His Stanford Prison Experiment made headlines 31 years ago when participating students at Stanford University were jailed by a cooperative local police force and left to the less than tender mercies of other students posing as guards. The project reached meltdown even faster than the one in "Das Experiment."

The film originally credited the Stanford project as inspiration, but it was one credit that Mr. Zimbardo, who maintains a Web site, didn't want, and it has since been excised. Unlike the movie scientists, Mr. Zimbardo shut his experiment down in less than a week. "These guys were peaceniks," he says of his 1971 student guards on "They became like Nazis."

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