HOW LONG DOES it take to make a monster? According to this tense German thriller, only five days. Volunteers paid to behave as either inmates or guards in a make- believe prison demonstrate that Hannah Arendt was only partly right—evil isn't just banal, it's petty.
Morris Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) is Fahd, an undercover journalist who enters the psychology experiment alongside a cab driver, a middle manager, and even an Elvis impersonator. "You will have no privacy and will waive your civil rights," they're warned. While we expect the "inmates" to be dehumanized, it's the "guards" who, fearful for their fragile authority, turn brutal with unsettling ease as Fahd's Cuckoo's Nest-style cage rattling spurs their swaggering wrath. (Especially chilling is Justus von Dohnஹi's performance as the meek Berus, whose fascist cruelty grows to counter his fear of humiliation.)
It would be easy to view Das Experiment simply as a parable of Germany's totalitarian past, except that it's based on an actual, infamous American university experiment. In 1971, Stanford researchers conducted this same test with students, then watched impassively as otherwise affable young men descended rapidly into beastliness. The study was shut down after five days.
In the film's gripping denouement, director Oliver Hirschbiegel considers what might have happened if that destructive experiment had continued into a sixth day. When it was shown at SIFF (where Bleibtreu was voted Best Actor), we had only begun to sense the movie's relevance in an age of heightened security. Today, Das Experiment is an even more timely reminder that it's not the criminals we need to watch so much as the guards.