Tarek Fahd (Moritz Biebtreu) is a taxi driver whose eyes have alighted upon an advertisement in the newspaper which is asking for men to apply to be test subjects for an upcoming university experiment. Tarek sees the opportunity to make some cash, but not only by accepting the wage the doctors are offering, as when he finds out the nature of the experiment he thinks he can spice it up a bit with a deal he makes on the outside as well. He accepts the media offer to act as a mole to report on how it all goes, wearing a pair of special glasses which hold a tiny camera, and goes in to what turns out to be a jail. But none of it's real - is it?
Back in 1971, there was an experiment at the Stanford University in how people act under prison conditions, both as guards and inmates, even if the situation is a wholly artificial one. This was abandoned after six days of an intended two weeks, as the test subjects acting as the guards became carried away with their roles and began victimising the inmates, even though there was nothing the inmates had done to deserve such treatment. This has since gone down in history as a strong example of how people can excuse themselves the worst kind of actions if someone in authority has told them they are justified, even when any reasonable approach indicates to the contrary.
So it's surprising the Stanford incident took so long to inspire a movie, although when director Oliver Hirschbiegel brought Mario Giordano's novel to the big screen the result was something even more sensational than the actual events, and in that thriller format the lessons to be learned were swamped by a lot of running about and violence. All very slickly produced, but a more faithful film of the historical occurence might have provided more food for thought. In spite of the giving in after about an hour to suspense and conventional excitements, Das Experiment did feature solid performances that offered something to muse upon.
The main drawback is that you cannot imagine even the delsuional guards - and not all of them go along with what happens - would go quite as far as they do in the full knowledge that it was all fake. Although they do grow conspiratorial under the tutelage of self-styled leader Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), whose paranoia that what they are doing is self-justified by the fact they are being observed by an aloof intellectual, Dr Thon (Edgar Selge), the manner in which this all goes spiralling out of control is hard to credit as realistic. If you do forget about this being drawn from life, however, there are entertainments to be had in its mounting tension, all of it well handled.
Bliebtreu makes his mark both in the story and with the viewer as an insolent but restless soul-searcher in the character of Tarek, who has a woman outside the makeshift jail, Dora (Maren Eggert), who he literally bumped into when she possibly deliberately crashed into his taxi on the way back from her father's funeral. A relationship develops, although not an especially convincing one, and Dora comes across as someone for the convenience of the plot, because it was necessary for someone on the outside to realise what was going on and take action. Inside, however, it's humiliation of the "prisoners" all the way, with the "guards" growing ever bolder in their taunting and bullying, all without foundation. The film could have done without the artier moments as perhaps a documentary style might have been more beneficial, but this is fair otherwise. Music by Alexander Bubenheim.