Inspired by the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, this gruelling German thriller effectively gets under our skin … even as it goes just a tad bit too far. We’re in modern day Germany, where a taxi driver (Bliebtrue) sees an ad asking for volunteers for a two-week mock prison experiment. He can use the money, and he also wants to ignite his journalism career by documenting the experience. So he signs up, and is assigned a role as a prisoner. Conflict arises quickly though, as he clashes with one of the guards (Von Dohnanyi), a particularly brutal, Nazi-like beast. And the experiment’s organizers (Sawatzki and Selge) are reluctant to call off the test, because the results are better than they ever imagined. Bad decision.
As things get increasingly out of control, the film gets harder and harder to watch. The levels of brutality that rise in these ordinary men are frightening, especially from the perspective of the prisoners, who are more able thank the guards to maintain their it’s-only-a-game objectivity. The acting is effective throughout, and the film is designed beautifully–there’s a reality-TV look about it that’s deeply unsettling. The problems arise in the plotline. There’s a point where the story crosses from pseudo-documentary into pure fiction–characters develop hitherto untapped resources for cruelty or heroism, they begin to do illogical things, and the plot takes over from the character drama. By the end we’re left nearly breathless by the horror of it all … but by that point we have stopped believing that it could ever really happen like this.