Experiment, The (2001) - Synopsis

the experiment - synopsis headingWaiting in his taxi for passengers, Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu) reads the papers. An ad catches his eye:

4000 DM FOR 14 DAYS

What first sparks his interest is the idea of earning a nice sum of cash, but the ad also arouses a long dormant journalist's instinct in him. Tarek investigates the opportunity, meeting other applicants at the university Psychological Institute and learning more from Dr. Jutta Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki), the scientific assistant for the experiment: "It's about role-playing in a prison-like situation. You'll be randomly divided into groups of guards and prisoners. If you take part in the experiment as a prisoner, you'll be required to give up your private life and your rights as a citizen. "

Tarek is convinced that he's uncovered a great story and calls up Ziegler, a newspaper editor he'd worked for until two years ago. "Ten thousand, plus photos, no expenses" is Ziegler's offer. Tarek accepts and also secures a secret camera that can be built into a pair of glasses to videotape his undercover mission.

As physical and psychological tests determine the 20 finalists from the anonymous masses of applicants, individual personalities emerge: Schütte (Oliver Stokowski), who owns a little newspaper stand where Tarek sometimes buys his cigarettes; Eckert (Timo Dierkes), proud of the job he does as an Elvis imitator; and Berus (Justus von Dohnànyi), hurrying off to his job at the airport. Tarek must hide his obvious fear of tight dark spaces to prevent disqualification from the experiment.

Later, as Tarek drives his taxi through the night and across an empty intersection, he crashes into a young woman named Dora (Maren Eggert). Like Tarek, she is uninjured, but seems less worried about the accident she's caused than about the sudden death of her father; she's just returning from his funeral. The two spend a tender yet passionate night together. When Tarek mentions the next morning that he'll be taking part in an experiment, Dora is immediately against the idea. While both of them seem to be at a crossroads in their lives, they've already become very close.

In a university lecture hall, Professor Thon (Edgar Selge) is introduced as the director of the experiment to the selected participants: "The next two weeks will be a completely new experience. You will have to apply pressure and bear pressure. A few of you will do without basic human rights for the next two weeks. If anyone wants out, this is your last chance. "

The general mood of the group is relaxed, yet curious and full of expectations. Once they've been divided up into guards and prisoners, everyday prison life begins. Professor Thon: "You are now guards at a penitentiary. It is your duty to secure and maintain peace and order and to ensure that all laws are obeyed. You must take this duty seriously. The success or failure of the experiment depends on it. If you do not carry out your duty in a disciplined and conscientious manner, the experiment will be meaningless and we can cancel it right here and now. You are not playing guards. You are now guards. "

The prisoners, among them Schütte and Tarek, are instructed to strip. They're showered down. When they realize they won't be getting any underwear along with their rough linen frocks, the first rumblings are heard. Not giving the prisoners real clothes and forcing them to wear smocks without underwear achieve the guards' first act of humiliation. Oddly, history shows that once the prisoners put these uniforms on, they immediately began to walk and sit differently and to behave more like women than men.

Even though the staged nature of the situation lends it a bit of a schoolyard atmosphere, the first signs that the participants are settling into their roles can already be seen: The guards savor the feeling of superiority and the prisoners receive their first reprimands.

The prisoners are led down narrow hallways with white plastic walls to a row of four cells for three prisoners each. Bosch reads the rules:

1. Prisoners must only address each other by their prison numbers.
2. Prisoners must address guards as "Penitentiary Officer. "
3. Prisoners must not to speak after "Lights out".
4. Prisoners must completely eat their meals.
5. Prisoners must immediately obey every order given by the
penitentiary officers.
6. Guards must punish prisoners for very rule violation.

They are not told, however, just what that punishment will be. "That will be made clear when the time comes," Kamps (Nicki von Tempelhoff) announces. Violence, it is emphasized, is forbidden: "Whoever resorts to violence in any form will be immediately excluded from the experiment. "

Tarek gets assigned to Cell Three with his mates: Joe (Wotan Wilke Möhring), an electrician specializing in high voltage, and the enigmatic Steinhoff (Christian Berkel), an introvert who at first seems inconsequential. As everyday life inside the prison begins to take form, Dora dwells on her thoughts and feelings in her deceased father's house by the sea in Holland.

The first guard/prisoner conflict arises at dinner. Schütte, a slight, thin man, refuses to drink his milk, even after he's been vigorously ordered to. Evidently, he's allergic to milk. Tarek, who keeps switching on the secret camera implanted in his glasses, comes to Schütte's aid. He drinks the milk: "One to nothing for us, Schütte!" In the guards' room, Kamps snaps at his colleague: "Listen, you can't be led around by the nose here. They have to take us seriously, or else we can just go ahead and call the whole thing off. When you tell him he's got to drink his milk, he's got to drink his milk. Got it?"

Humiliated, Eckert storms to the cells to set an example: He forces the sleeping Tarek to get up and do sit-ups. When Tarek refuses, he ups the punishment to include his other two cellmates. From this moment on, the tone between the two sides becomes antagonistic, and Tarek consciously turns up the volume even more in his pursuit of a hot story.

After their initial, very instinctive reactions, the participants begin slipping into their roles as guards and prisoners, as perpetrators and victims. A subtle choreography of feelings takes form in the mock prison; the differences between play-acting and reality have long since grown vague and unclear.

The next conflict surfaces the following day when Eckert and Berus give Tarek a hard time during a check of the beds. Tarek tricks them and turns the tables by locking them up in the cell, which releases a ferocious chorus of cheers among the other prisoners. But the triumph doesn't last. The guards' initial uncertainty switches over to a willingness to resort to violent means, and the instinct of self-defense gives way to a tendency towards open aggression. Berus, who has up until now pretty much kept himself out of the picture, begins to take on the role of a leader in this crisis situation: "I read in a book once that in cases like this, the best way to regain control is through -- humiliation. "

The guards shut off all the lights and storm the row of cells with fire extinguishers. They shove the beds and blankets out of the cells, take the clothes off the prisoners and chain the naked Tarek to the bars. "As long as they don't say anything up there, we're doing the right thing. That's what they want, that something happens down here. "

On the third day, tensions rise yet again as alliances are formed between the guards as well as the prisoners. There are clearly leaders and followers and sharp divisions between each group. For the participants of the experiment, the idea that their respective roles are somehow abstract has disappeared. A dangerous chemistry grows between personal strengths and weaknesses of each participant, and the elements of power and weakness in their roles. The mock prison is like a magnifying glass, bringing out the deficits and weak points in each of them. Tarek's reaction to Berus's bodily odor is to provoke and humiliate him in front of the others. When he sees that Berus is about to explode under the pressure, he turns it up even more: "Hit me, you pansy! Hit me and you're out of here! Nah, you won't hit me. The job turns you on too much. There are just too many delicious things left for you to do to us!"

The use of force and the reactions to it build to a perilous climax as more and more violent incidents stack up, intensifying as feelings of hate, anger, fear and desperation come to the forefront.

In Cell Three, secrets are revealed: Tarek and Steinhoff admit to each other that they're undercover agents. Steinhoff, a Major in the Air Force, has been assigned to observe and report on the experiment by the German Army.

As the pressure mounts, the first round of "weak" participants are released from the experiment -- but the remaining participants do not react. There's a clear and severe conflict between Tarek on the prisoner side and Berus and Eckert on the other side, while the nervous and introverted Bosch (Antoine Monot, Jr. ) is clearly beginning to have serious doubts about the whole ordeal. His attempts to keep himself out of it all, though, are thwarted by the others.

The following night, the guards, recognizing him as a leader, grab Tarek from sleep, tie him up and gag him and drag him to a cellar beyond the reach of the scientists' observation cameras. They threaten him, humiliate him, shave off his hair and piss on their victim as he lies on the floor, yelling at him to apply for dismissal from the experiment the next day. "Who stinks now?" Berus shouts at the ring-leading Tarek in hate-filled satisfaction.

The escalating and more violent events result in a series of conflicts between the director and his assistant. While Professor Thon sees the rapid developments as a success within the context of the experiment, Dr. Jutta Grimm, increasingly worried, warns him of the obvious dangers and proposes terminating the experiment for the first time. Grimm: "53 and 69 are in the clinic. 82 is showing signs of depression. We have extreme helplessness, a loss of the sense of reality. .. " Thon responds: ". .. and disorientation, that's the focus of our research. In five days, we have submission to authority, a willingness to resort to violence and complete de-individualization. In five days!" Grimm, "Exactly. We've accomplished what we set out to do. Let's break it off and present the results. " Thon, getting greedy with the prospects: "No. We've got a steady situation at the moment. So far, nothing's happened down there that we didn't expect. There's no data anywhere in the world on what happens beyond this point! We still have nine days left, and if we were to shut it down during this phase, we'd be passing up the opportunity of our lives!" Grimm, more concerned than ever: "Maybe the whole thing's a mistake. I have the feeling we're losing control. We can't take responsibility for it anymore!"

Dora, who has been reminiscing about her father and going through his belongings, returns to find Tarek. She's located the key to his apartment in his mailbox that is overflowing with uncollected mail. She hopes to find clues in his apartment that would lead to an explanation of his sudden disappearance, a disappearance that doesn't jive with her inner feelings. She stays in Tarek's apartment because it gives her the feeling of being closer to him, despite the physical separation.

In the mock prison, Tarek plays down the events of the night before, but nevertheless suffers a panic attack that Steinhoff helps him get through. He wants the experiment to end and has his own ideas about how it should happen. During the time allotted for letter writing, Tarek quietly takes a piece of paper and a pen and writes a note he hopes to smuggle out to his editor Ziegler via Bosch -- who's even more nervous and scared of what Tarek's asked him to conceal. In the meantime, each of the prisoners is being treated more cruelly and with more unpredictability. When Tarek comes to the aid of a friend, he's forced to clean the toilet with his smock.

During visiting hours, it's not Ziegler who shows up to see Tarek but Dora. The happiness they'd normally feel for each other is overshadowed by the drama of the situation and the presence of unanswered questions in the air. Berus, who's become suspicious, intercepts the note for Ziegler on Bosch and makes an excuse to Dora and sends her away before Bosch can deliver the message. As emotions between the participants reach boiling point, Professor Thon is taken away from his test subjects in order to greet donors who might finance his project.

The guards grow more restless after uncovering Tarek's attempt to smuggle a call for help outside the prison. The lines of conflict are redrawn. Now they're not only against Bosch, the "traitor," but also those who are working on the experiment. "This is a test; they want to see how we react to challenges from the outside. " They decide to shut themselves off completely until Professor Thon returns. They cut the phone lines, lock Tarek up in the Black Box (a tiny, free standing cell completely devoid of sound and light) round up the university employees and lead them to the cells dressed in prisoner's clothes.

The line between duty and the abuse of power has long since been crossed. When Schütte, weak and thin, spontaneously bursts out with his angry feelings, Berus, without actually being threatened, pounds him hard with his club. The prison, now under the complete control of the guards, becomes a battleground, and all within it must now fight for their very lives. Within a mere five days, normal, honorable citizens have become torturers and murderers.

Once these five days are over, none of the lives of the participants will ever be the same again.