The ultimate Experiment: Hirschbiegel shows brutality of humankind

Filed under: Special Coverage

As a blackjack dealer, I can honestly tell you that the majority of the time, gambling does not pay. For every person that leaves my table up, 10-15 will leave down, and the person that left up will most likely lose his/her winnings the next day.

That being said, occasionally a gamble does pay off big time, and changes your life forever. Such is the case with German director Oliver Hirschbiegel's journey into the art of filmmaking -- a journey in which at this point, he finds himself preparing for the North American release of his first film made especially for the big screen, Das Experiment. But before we get into that, first the brief, but interesting story that shows gambling can pay off.

Originally, Hirschbiegel was an artist that looked to studying painting and graphic work to express his artistic side. Eventually, his artistic pursuits led him into shooting experimental films, performances, and video footage. Intrigued by the medium of film and narrative, Hirschbiegel finally wrote his own screenplay. After shopping it around for a while as aspiring screenwriters do, he found a German television station that was interested in purchasing it -- a truly grand accomplishment! However, Hirschbiegel knew that he wanted to direct... so he gambled. He told the station that he would sell it to them, but they had to hire him on as the director. The gamble worked, and nine made-for-TV movies later, Hirschbiegel is ready to pounce onto the big screen with Das Experiment. In a telephone interview, Hirschbiegel shed some light on his intentions with and hopes of this dark, and often brutal examination of the primal and corruptible instincts of the human psyche.

Based on a novel published in 1971 that was inspired by true events, Das Experiment follows Tarek, a cab driver that signs up to participate in an experiment that he sees advertised. Participants in the experiment are put into a mock prison environment and are assigned one of two roles -- guard or prisoner -- and they are to act out their roles with as much accuracy as possible, but without any physical violence (these rules are spelled out to all the participants by the scientists who are actually conducting the experiment). Everything goes fine for a rather short while. Pretty soon, the "power" given to the guards begins to distort the fake reality they are in, into a real reality. The prisoners are eventually forced to fight for their actual survival.

The ethical questions that this film ponders extend past the guards, however, for they are not the only ones that have the power of "control". The scientists, who are supervising the experiment in "the name of science" refuse to acknowledge (or very slowly acknowledge once it's too late) that what they have created is going horribly wrong. Their vanity and fear of failure overtakes the responsibility that comes with their position, just as the power the guards wield overtakes the responsibility that comes with their position. But Hirschbiegel is not out to condemn science, or even expose it. The irrationality of the scientists simply shows how, in Hirschbiegel's own words, "science tries to be objective, but fails."

The power hunger of the guards and the vanity of the scientists demonstrates that we, as humans, have not really learned anything from all the tragedies that have plagued the world. From holocausts, nuclear bombs, war, strife, etc., we may think we have learned lessons, but at heart humans are still primal animals whose self-preservation instincts will kick in if we are placed in a situation where we need (or think we need) them.

Despite the apparent bleakness of the message, Hirschbiegel hopes that Das Experiment will give his audience something to ponder (along with his hope that they will be entertained). Inevitably, if you find yourself in an extreme situation -- as the prisoners, guards, and scientists did -- responsibility is not something that you can, or at least should, give away.

Tags: Das Experiment, Oliver Hirschbiegel, true story

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