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Experiment (Das Experiment), The

Columbia/Tri-Star // R // July 1, 2003
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted June 9, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The movie

Who are you? How much of your identity is based on your role in society... and its invisible rules of behavior? And what do you think would happen if those rules were taken away... or if you had the power to make and enforce your own rules?

These aren't questions that Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu) expects to confront when he signs up as a paid volunteer for a psychological experiment simulating a prison environment. Along with a dozen other volunteers designated as "prisoners" and a smaller group as "guards," he expects the next 14 days of "incarceration" to be an interesting experience, nothing more, playing out a game under the watchful eyes of the researchers' 24-hour surveillance cameras. But very soon, all the participants learn that they're in for more than they realized, as the combination of stress and the imbalance of power between prisoners and guards may be more than any of them can handle.

I've seen the label "psychological thriller" tossed around to label a lot of movies; The Experiment (original title: Das Experiment) is one where it fits perfectly. The drama is simple, in that the power struggles and conflicts between individuals are stripped down to their essences here, in the stark environment of the simulated prison. The psychological dimension of the drama is in the characters attempting to deal with the unexpectedly intense situation, and in the way that the changing situation catches all the characters up in its clutches, changing them, drawing them in, even against their will.

The Experiment is a truly frightening movie. It's not in the "cheap thrills" department, with scares provided by a monster-figure or even a "monstrous" human killer whom we can comfortably label as "deviant." No, The Experiment deliberately peels back the layers of civilized restraint, revealing that quite near the surface lies behavior that is simply, shockingly evil... and equally human. Under pressure, the old instincts of dominance and submission, of aggression and violence, come into play; what's scary about The Experiment is the ease with which these come to the surface, even in the modern day, even in a "controlled" situation.

But perhaps what's even more frightening is indeed that balance of so-called control; as the experiment proceeds, the question of who is in control becomes more and more unclear... at the same time that it becomes more and more important. We tend to think of "peer pressure" as something that only affects children and teenagers, before they learn to have confidence in their own judgment, but in truth, every person in a society is subject to pressure to conform, and with adults, it may be even more dangerous because it's less recognized. The Experiment forces us to confront the disturbing effects of being part of a group, to see how one or two individuals can shift the balance of power, and to recognize how a person can be drawn into committing acts that he would never have even considered, let alone done, on his own.

I've mostly been discussing the overall theme of the film, and its subject; I don't want to end the review without praising the way in which these elements are executed. The Experiment is a visually and aurally creative film, with cinematography and sound design that depict the intense drama of the story in an imaginative, artistic manner. Dramatic lighting, contrast between light and dark, varying camera angles, and the use of color are all pieces of the puzzle that add up to a dark, richly textured, and satisfying film.

In closing, I'd also like to note that the DVD of The Experiment wins my Cheesy Cover Art of the Month Award. The cover image is something that never occurs in the film, and it has a vaguely science-fictional look to it that's completely unwarranted: this is not, I repeat not, science fiction. It's a completely (and frighteningly) realistic psychological thriller.



The Experiment is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. Columbia/Tristar has done a very nice job with this release, with only a few minor flaws detracting from an excellent visual experience. Some edge enhancement is noticeable, but only a few scenes. The only flaw that's apparent throughout the movie is a moderate number of small- to medium-sized print flaws. Apart from that, the transfer is excellent, especially since it's a visually challenging film.

Colors and contrast are handled well throughout the film. That's not to say that they always look "natural," because the film plays with extremes of light and shadow, along with variations in color in its visual imagery to underscore the events happening on-screen. What matters is that it's done intentionally to create a specific (and highly effective) tone for the film. Black levels are nicely deep and dark, and while many scenes are very dark, the detail that we're supposed to see is always evident. Noise is virtually absent as well.

English subtitles are provided, and I was pleased to note that they are optional. The subtitles are in an easy-to-read yellow, and appeared to be well-written and grammatically correct throughout the film.


The Experiment's German Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is superb. Not only does it handle the ordinary duties of a soundtrack well, like presenting clear, natural-sounding dialogue, correctly balanced volume among the dialogue, music, and effects tracks, and a clean background, the soundtrack here goes a step further to provide an intense audio experience for the film. The Experiment makes the best use of the full surround channels that I've heard in quite a while; the rear channels in particular are put through a workout, creating the convincing impression that we, like the characters, are within the prison.

The sound here doesn't just play what's happening on the screen; skilful use of music and effects makes it so that the soundtrack creates a visceral reaction in the viewer, making what's happening seem intensely real. As just one example, at one point in the film a "black box" is brought into the simulated prison; I won't tell you what it is, other than to say that Fahd is afraid of it. Every time he looks at the box, the scene goes silent... except for a deep, almost inaudible bass hum from the subwoofer, which hits in the pit of the stomach with a feeling very much like anxiety. Without calling attention to itself at all, the soundtrack effectively works with the rest of the film to evoke an emotional reaction in the viewer. Trust me... it's intense.


There's nothing major here, just three trailers for other films, including Run Lola Run.

Final thoughts

The Experiment could be described as the intersection between Cube and Lord of the Flies: from Cube, the "rats in a cage" aspect of human behavior in a tightly limited (and threatening) environment, and from Lord of the Flies, the frightening consequences of a breakdown of "civilized" society. If either of those two movies (or book) intrigued you, then run, don't walk, to buy The Experiment. Polished in its execution and chilling in its implications, this is a film that I'll highly recommend in general, especially as its DVD transfer is outstanding.

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Highly Recommended

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