A former journalist-turned-cabbie eager to return to his profession persuades his ex-boss to let him take on an undercover assignment so he can participate in a supposed non-violent, scientific experiment that pits ordinary men playing prisoners or guards against one another.
Cabbie Tarek Fahd, eager to return to a career in journalism, answers an intriguing ad seeking participants in a scientific experiment and pitches his ex-boss on a story about it. The program, set up by a professor and his assistant, involves 20 men who are confined for two weeks in a mock prison where they assume the roles of guards or prisoners. Those chosen will be paid handsomely, closely monitored and (supposedly) immune to violence since it is strictly verboten. Just prior to entering the mock prison, Tarek literally bumps into Dora (Maren Eggert) when their cars collide and a passionate one-night stand ensues. They part so that he can carry out his assignment. At the mock-prison, Tarek, who secretly wears a minicam hidden in his glasses, is assigned to the ''inmate'' team, not the choicer of the two categories since ''inmates'' are subjected to more rules and restrictions than their ''guard'' adversaries. Tarek's journalistic instincts soon take over as, eager for a good story, he provokes a guard who torments another inmate for not finishing his meal. Tarek, in turn, is punished and humiliated, thus further and dangerously stoking the rivalry and inciting several guards, including their pernicious leader Berkus (Justus von Dohnanyi ) and the dangerously aggressive Eckert (Timo Dierkes). Things get out of hand and the violence escalates to fatal proportions until Tarek, fortified by the love of a woman, saves the day.
As he showed in Run Lola Run, Moritz Bleibtreu as Tarek has true star quality. He's a pleasure to watch, plus he's thoroughly believable. Bleibtreu is no doubt helped by the strong supporting roles, including von Dohnanyi as Berkus, Dierkes as Eckert, Edgar Selge as the effete Professor and Andrea Sawatzki as skeptical assistant Dr. Grimm, who will pay a price.
Like so many books, plays and films before it, Das Experiment, in German with English subtitles, focuses on how good intentions go disastrously astray when people are thrown together and human nature rears its ugliest head. Blessed with his fine actors, director Oliver Hirschbiegel works from a script by Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstadt, and Don Bohlinger, who adapted it from a book that recalls a real-life Stanford University experiment. Hirschbiegel ably delivers some nifty visuals, meant to be the hero's point-of-view as seen through his embedded minicam. The director is a master of pacing, which helps overcome the fact that his set and story don't always persuade, and he turns his parable into an eminently watchable piece.
The eponymous experiment is meant to be psychological, not physical, but because this is another tale of men behaving badly we get both. This is a slick, well-crafted effort but Das Experiment is a familiar, and even predictable parable. While the romantic subplot is awkwardly integrated and the experiment itself occasionally rings a tad faux (the studio-like prison setting doesn't help), the film is most often intriguing and engaging, even though we've all read and seen enough to know the outcome.