Das Experiment

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Although no great fan of art house movies, I make an exception for Das Experiment, which was on BBC4 last night (although I confess that I’d watch anything with Moritz Bleibtreu in it).

The film is based on Mario Giordano’s novel Black Box which in turn is a fictional extension of the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment in which it took ‘ordinary people’ only five days to turn so nasty once they’d been assigned the role of prison guard that they had to stop the experiment before it got right out of hand. As Bleibtreu says in an interview about the film, “…it’s not about these people. It’s about the roles that you put them in… ” (source).

Das Experiment is a mass of complex issues, beginning of course, with ‘what would you do given the power?’, undertones of homo-eroticism/homophobia, neo-nazism and other specifically German or European ones (such as Tarek’s ‘otherness’ in the German context of the film: see Steffen Hantke’s article ). Bleibtreu himself raises even more questions, about the ethics of journalism in this interview; as a journalist, says Bleibtreu, Tarek should not have become part of the story he was reporting by provoking the issue (although for me, Tarek was a hero – he’s got the looks, the ethics, the girl and the maverick intelligence, and there is something very crown-of-thornsish about all those electrodes.

Interesting that he also dismisses the idea that he might have visited a prison as research for the film, because ‘…acting is acting, and life is life. I can spend a couple of weeks in jail three times over, but I’ll still know that I’m doing to prepare for a role. That’s not comparable with standing in front of a judge and getting 15 years.’ Makes a healthy change from all that luvvie ‘research’.

It also makes ‘reality TV’ look very lame and sick. You thought Big Brother was bad? The broadcast of the BBC’s attempt at re-running the Stanford experiment was delayed because some participants didn’t like the way they’d been portrayed at an early preview of the programme (!). As if they didn’t realize that being on reality television is a form of genuine imprisonment.

The Stanford Experiment – where are they now?
It should not be surprising that the man in charge of the Stanford experiment, Philip Zimbardo would by now be an expert on the psychology of terror, manipulation and man’s inhumanity to man. His article (written in January this year, hence before the war started) The Political Psychology of Terrorist Alarms is a fascinating study of the way that America’s terrorist alerts since 9/11 have cowed people into a state of generalized anxiety which in turn brings about changes in the way they think and feel about the world around them. He ends the article with this excerpt from Goering’s statement at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial:

“Why of course the people don’t want war… That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.


Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

The ellipsis is mine, not Zimbardo’s – you can find the missing bit in this short article about Goering’s statement.

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