Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Cronenberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 2001. German drama/thriller directed by Oliver Hirshbiegel.
If edge of your seat suspense with a dash of social relevance is your cup of tea, then Das Experiment offers the right brew for you. Be forewarned, however, that Das Experiment does not necessarily conform to everyone's idea of entertainment. Those seeking feel-good, warm-hearted escapism, reaffirming the essential goodness of man would be well advised to look elsewhere.
Based on Mario Giordano's novel, Black Box, a fictionalized account of the infamous and controversial Stanford prison experiment headed by psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the film creates an intense, claustrophobic, often unbearably frustrating, and ultimately devastating experience that is sure to engage viewers regardless of their respective feelings of the film's value.
While the film begins with a disclaimer that states the events and characters portrayed are entirely a work of fiction, the similarities and comparisons to the Stanford experiment are obvious and unavoidable. In fact, the basic premise of both the film and the actual experiment are essentially the same. In both, a group of volunteers are paid to participate in a mock prison re-enactment; half of them would assume the roles of prisoners, the other half of guards. In both, guards were instructed to run the "prison" and maintain order by any means they deemed appropriate, with only one rule - no physical violence. Most notably, in both the film and the actual experiment, the situation quickly escalates, as both prisoners and guards internalize their roles. As in the film, day two of the actual experiment saw a riot breakout. Guards of the Stanford experiment responded with tactics of humiliation and sadism that included such acts as an attack with fire extinguishers, forced nudity, unsanitary conditions and verbal abuse and humiliation - all events portrayed in the film.
The film's central character is Tarek Fahd, a cab driver and sometimes aspiring journalist. Played with considerable charm and affability by Moritz Bleibtreu (whom you may remember as the boyfriend in Run Lola Run), Tarek is presented to us as an intelligent, insightful, gregarious, though perhaps troubled and aimless individual who we suspect is somewhat baffled by life and mostly just wants to make it to tomorrow and have good time. In short, he is not unlike many of us, and as such is someone with whom the viewer can easily identify, even root for.
Hearing of a local psychiatric experiment that is asking for paid volunteers, Tarek smells an opportunity to make a quick buck and land a good story that may jumpstart his career by surreptitiously filming the events of the experiment (using camera fitted glasses) and selling his story and film to, we presume, the highest bidder.
Through a series of quickly edited and sometimes humorous interviews, we are introduced to the participants of the experiment, among them a not terribly skilled Elvis impersonator, a shy Kiosk owner (who we suspect is motivated to partake mostly by his loneliness) and a buttoned-down airline employee, Berus, who proudly boasts to the interviewers of having never been late in seven years of employment.