The Controversial Das Experiment: Is There Some Hitler in All of Us?

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment , from a screenplay by Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstädt and Don Bohlinger, based on the novel Black Box by Mario Giordano, has reportedly caused a sensation in Germany and on the international festival circuit, and well it might-not merely for what the movie is in itself, but also for its having been made in Germany by German filmmakers. The film concerns a psychological-research team in Cologne recruiting 20 volunteers who, for a fee of 4,000 Deutschemarks each, will pretend to be guards and prisoners over two weeks in a controlled prison-like environment. The 12 prisoners are to be locked up in real slammers and ordered to obey all rules and instructions. The guards are expected to keep order without resorting to physical violence. It’s all supposed to be a simulation-on the order of the recent “reality” ordeals on American network television-but we hardened moviegoers know better.

The story is told from the point of view of Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu), a former journalist reduced to driving a taxi. We see him reading a newspaper while waiting for the light to change and noticing an ad: “Test participants needed / 4000 DM for 14 days / Experiment in mock prison.”

Tarek is intrigued-not only by the size of the fee, but also by the opportunity it may give him to write a story that will get him back in the good graces of his former editor. The next day, he visits the University Psychological Institute to learn more and listens to an introductory lecture by Dr. Jutta Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki), the scientific consultant for the project. As she explains the role-playing premises of the experiment, she notes that prisoners and guards will be chosen at random, but only after a preliminary battery of mental and physical tests. She concludes by noting that each “prisoner” will be required to surrender his privacy and his rights as a citizen during the period of the experiment. Needless to say, none of the volunteers is deterred by these conditions.

Tarek convinces his ex-editor to commission a story on the project, and he then arranges to have a secret camera ingeniously installed in a pair of eyeglasses to take the photos needed for the “scoop.” Later that day, Tarek drives his cab through an intersection and crashes into the car of a young woman named Dora (Maren Eggert), who is more dazed than injured by the accident, although her car is totaled. Dora tells Tarek that she was just returning from her father’s funeral. Tarek takes her to his apartment to recover; when he’s about to leave her alone on his couch for some much-needed rest, she provocatively asks him to stay, and the inevitable occurs with remarkable speed and facility.

Up to this point, one is made aware that the filmmakers are disposing of the preliminaries without much effort to achieve even a semblance of verisimilitude. It’s as if they can’t wait to dump Dora and her inscrutable expressions so they can get to the nitty-gritty and concentrate instead on the guard/convict make-believe. But it will eventually transpire that there is much more to Dora than one would expect from what seems, at first, to be nothing more than a one-night stand.

Before the experiment begins, the project’s overseer, Professor Klaus Thon (Edgar Selge), addresses the volunteers and offers everyone an opportunity to walk out-an offer that everyone predictably refuses, if for no other reason than the shaming power of group dynamics. Dr. Thon’s histrionically dedicated manner stamps him as one of moviedom’s monstrous men of science, with the hellish hubris to go where no man has gone before, regardless of the collateral damage done to the lives of lesser beings.

At first, the prisoners treat their predicament as a lark and start taunting their jailers-who, in turn, are increasingly uncomfortable and resentful at the lack of respect they’re receiving. The prisoners’ humiliation begins when they’re ordered to strip naked and then put on dress-like plain garments with no underwear. Then they’re herded three to a cell into a makeshift barracks and ordered not to talk after lights out. The initially carefree mood of the prisoners is quickly squelched as they come to realize that the unequal power dynamic has transformed a bunch of guys who were just kidding around before the experiment into two antagonistic groups, the oppressors and the oppressed.

Tarek starts out with the sense of superiority that even a “prisoner” can feel when he’s acting in accordance with a secret, private agenda of his own. Tarek boldly assumes the role of troublemaker when he intervenes in a disciplinary matter and rescues a lactose-intolerant fellow prisoner from having to consume a small bottle of milk by drinking it himself. At first, Tarek is punished by being ordered to do 20 push-ups. When he continues to be insolent, however, his cellmates and then the entire prisoner contingent are punished alongside him. Before Tarek can begin modifying his dangerous, irresponsible behavior, he is taken into a private room away from the cameras of the supervising psychological team and brutally humiliated.

Around this point, Dr. Grimm warns Dr. Thon that the experiment threatens to get out of control, but he assures her that they’re starting to get the results that will revolutionize their field of study. For her doubts about the project, Dr. Grimm earns the enmity of the guards, and she is nearly raped when they take control of the compound during the absence of Dr. Thon, who is away giving a lecture on his spectacular findings.

Meanwhile, Tarek is subjected, figuratively and literally, to his darkest ordeal when he is locked in a black box that was originally intended to serve as an instrument of coercion simply by being shown without being used. It is during Tarek’s time in the black box that Dora’s concerned image is superimposed, a form of emotional telepathy that gives the entire spectacle an other-worldly dimension.

The movie’s allegory is quite clear, even without the ghoulish prodding of the last century’s history: Power not only corrupts, it also brutalizes the powerless. There is a little Hitler in all of us if we are not held back by any moral or social restraints, though there are always some individuals who are more imaginatively ruthless in gaining and exploiting power then the normal run of humanity. And so it is here with the crypto-fascists who take charge of the herd, until they are thwarted by the holy goodness of Dora and Tarek. But it is in the camera details rather than the grand design that Das Experiment excels.

French Action Farce

Gérard Krawczyk’s Wasabi , from a screenplay by Luc Besson, is not the kind of French movie that shows up at film festivals or even local art houses. For one thing, it is percussively and acrobatically pugnacious rather than truly and malignantly violent. It is thus closer in spirit to the Hong Kong school of martial arts than to the fleshy sybarites of the Sorbonne. On a moviegoing-idiot level, Wasabi plays like a not entirely unfunny action flick with a feel-good escapist spirit that is far from unwelcome in these unpleasant times. Its only commercial handicap is that it’s a French movie with English subtitles, shot mostly in Japan and featuring ethnically stereotyped lawmen and Yakuza outlaws.

Hubert (Jean Reno) is an explosive French detective with a short fuse, who is regarded by his superiors as a French Dirty Harry who needs to get a life after mooning for 19 years over the wife who left him without a word. When Hubert hits someone-as he often does in the course of his duties-that person bounces into the next room more like a circus performer than an ordinary stunt man in a vintage Clint Eastwood policier . So we know we’re watching that French subgenre, the action farce-something between the broader forms of current blaxploitation and Asian chop-chop suey.

After roughing up a gang of simpering female impersonators with blond wigs robbing a bank, Hubert is informed via a long-distance call from Tokyo that his Japanese wife has just died and has named him as her only heir. After a sexless farewell dinner with his female acquaintance, Sofia (the beauteous but wasted Carole Bouquet in this oo-la-la -free French film), Hubert is off to Tokyo, where he slugs an overly inquisitive airport policeman out of force of habit. Hubert is thrown in jail, but then bailed out by Momo (Michael Muller), an old French secret-service buddy from the days when they were both stationed in Tokyo, bedeviling the Russkies during the Cold War.

Momo immediately starts to serve as the fat, cheerfully admiring Sancho Panza to Hubert’s dolefully countenanced Don Quixote. When Hubert finally meets the Japanese lawyer who summoned him to Tokyo for the reading of his late wife’s will, he is presented a small box in which he finds his old love letters and a mysterious key. He has also been bequeathed the care of a 19-year-old girl named Yumi (Ryoko Hirosue), who has no idea that Hubert is her father. Yumi has just been released from jail for hitting a policeman. This is a sign, the lawyer tells Hubert, that Yumi is truly a chip off the old block.

When ostentatiously mysterious men in black begin tailing Hubert and Yumi, the very paternal father begins knocking off the villains one by one in a series of choreographed fight scenes in order to keep his daughter from realizing that she’s in danger. And no wonder: Yumi is completely unaware that she has inherited $20 million of Yakuza money from her mother, a patriotic undercover agent who had been working against the Yakuza before her death.

The funny thing is, I didn’t mind all this contrived nonsense a bit. Mr. Reno exudes the kind of grizzled gravitas that is too easy to underrate in an enterprise so dangerously close to drifting into mere facetiousness. And Ms. Hirosue’s Yumi is a bundle of mini-skirted energy, with a curiously uninhibited talent that is the farthest thing from what we think of as Japanese decorum. Mr. Besson, the writer, producer and probably the main auteur of Wasabi , is better known over here than its director, Mr. Krawczyk. Perhaps more than any other French filmmaker, Mr. Besson has never resigned himself to being “merely” French, and has thus tried in vain to beat Hollywood at its own game. It can’t be done, Luc-and anyway, it isn’t worth doing in the first place.

Moving Shanghai Ghetto

Shanghai Ghetto , produced and directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, and narrated by Martin Landau, provides a very moving and revelatory footnote to the Holocaust, without making any extravagant claims for the size and practicality of a sanctuary that saved thousands from a disaster that eventually claimed the lives of millions.

This strange story begins in the late 1930′s, when all the supposedly civilized countries of the Western world refused entry to the millions of Jews seeking to escape the ovens of Nazi Germany. The film goes on to suggest that this institutional rejection of German Jewry by the “enlightened” countries of Europe and the Americas meant that no one outside Germany would much mind if Hitler disposed of his Jewish “problem” in his own way.

Then, suddenly, by one of the anomalies of history, a beacon of hope appeared a continent and a world away-in, of all places, Japanese-controlled Shanghai, to which one could book passage from an Italian port without needing a visa in that chaotic period before Japan entered the war on the German side. The film comes to life in interviews with survivors and historians, rare letters, stock photos and footage shot in modern Shanghai, where most of the Jewish ghetto remains unchanged. For many comparatively upscale refugees, this was their first contact with the heart-rending poverty and exemplary kindness of the Chinese people. It is to cry. See it if you have a soul.