In 1971, Stanford University’s psychologists ran a unique experiment designed to test individuals’ reactions to group dynamics within a social situation.
The scientists took a bunch of men, split them into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ and placed them in a mock penitentiary. Each group was supposed to play out their allotted roles, but after only a few days the scientists pulled the plug. The results were just too shocking.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s debut feature is a fictionalised account of the incident. Journalist Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu) signs up for the experiment in the hope of getting a story. Within 36 hours, the battle lines between prisoners and guards are drawn.
Three days later, the group is on the verge of psychological collapse as “subliminal violence and complete de-personalisation” set in. The scientists are ecstatic, but are they still in control?
With its incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere, The Experiment unflinchingly catalogues the ease with which ordinary men become monsters and victims.
It’s harrowing viewing, with more than an echo of World War Two concentration camps lurking behind the scenes, but to his credit Hirschbiegel doesn’t sensationalise the action. Given the current obsession with televised social experiments (Big Brother, Survivor), this harrowing journey to hell and back couldn’t be more precient – or shocking.