November 26, 2005
Das Experiment is the modern Caligari
German film has experienced an entire range of control and freedoms during its existence. What began as an intellectual and freeing display of emotions and ideas became corrupted during the Nazi regime of the 1930s and early 1940s. German cinema today is still trying to grasp the complexities of its past. German filmmakers to this day are exploring the world of freedoms of man and of conscience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2001 film Das Experiment (The Experiment) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. This film explores an entire range of feelings throughout the history of German cinema.
The film’s basic premise is based on an infamous psychological experiment from 1971 known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Men are hired to participate, to act as either guards or warders for two weeks. They all know it is an experiment but in order for the guards to sanction their authority over prisoners that don’t submit, the guards must use worse and worse measures in order to justify their supposed authority, relying at times for example to have the prisoners scrub toilets with their bare hands. The experiment rapidly deteriorates, with the warders pushing harder and the prisoners pushing back, degenerating into complete anarchy and even violence, the one avenue of authority the guards were restricted from using according to the original parameters of the experiment. This movie brings to light a whole range of feelings throughout the history of German cinema.
German film has always been influenced by politics, whether conformist, revolutionary, or propaganda. The beginning of German film began with such movies as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari of 1920. It began with a revolutionary overtone of a man controlling another to do the darkest of biddings. Could a man be asked, through hypnosis or during somnambulism, to commit murder? Was this true of the entire human condition? As we have found out years later, this film was changed at the end in order to accommodate a populace that liked simpler endings. The audience was much more comfortable with a madman fantasy than they were with the idea that they could succumb to another’s desires to commit atrocities. With the oncoming Nazi regime, maybe the audiences needed to understand these ideas better.
Das Experiment utilizes many aspects from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari of falling into the roles that are put upon us by others. The guards were regular and gentle men. They had no will to do violence. In order for them to get approval from the scientists in charge of the experiment, they feel that they have to put the troublemakers in line. At first, it is only minimal violence and degradation. When the prisoners retaliated in greater fashion because of the treatment of the guards, the warders used even greater means. With the scientists not watching at times, there were no controls. In fact, the scientists wanted to see just how far it would go. The scientists were playing Dr. Caligari with these people.
During World War II, the Nazi regime was in charge of the cinema. They produced propaganda films that influenced the populace. How do people react to power and submission? Ordinary people can do extraordinary things, things they wouldn’t dream of during normal times. Power and conformity can shape human societies. The warders seize control of the situation from the scientists in order to do better for them and show them what real control is. In the end, the real motive is money. The warders do not want to forfeit all of the money that they would be paid. The only way to make it bearable is for the warders to fix the troublemakers. They don’t want to lose the wages.
Now that German film has been freed of the constraints it has felt for most of the twentieth century, the industry can put out the films that it has always wanted to put out. Director Hirschbiegel saw the obvious parallels between Das Experiment, Caligari, and the history of German cinema. Now, he author would not have to rewrite the ending into a typical pattern to make it conformist. He could break the rules and have the population think about the events in the movie and the effects on their lives.
There are many parallels in this movie to the history of the German cinema. First of all, one can easily see a sort of interpretation of Staudte’s Rotation from 1949. In that film, a normal man wants to join the Nazi party to simply earn a good living. However, the matter becomes complicated when a neighbor Jewish couple is taken away. In Das Experiment, the men that are chosen to play the roles of warders in the experiment all really just want the money. When the undercover reporter begins to cause trouble, they truly don’t want to do nasty or unethical things. The audience can sense they are only trying to save their wages. This is the point where the director is asking the audience what they would do.
The ending to Das Experiment has come under critical fire. Many critics do not understand how the chaos got so far. The director could have made a more conformist ending. He could have blamed someone at the end, either the warders or the prisoners or the scientists. He doesn’t. He wants the public to understand that answers aren’t easy. Evil and good is in all mankind. When one is presented with a matter of conscience, are there other factors that would prevent one from doing the right thing? German film has shown us how this is possible.