Taxi driver and freelance journalist Tarek Fahd spots an advert in a newspaper for volunteers to take part in a psychological experiment over two weeks. He arrives along with a group of others, to be divided up into prisoners and guards before being placed into a simulated prison and provided with rules, Tarek being prisoner number 77. Initially everyone is enjoying themselves but soon the guards tire of the prisoners taking the p*ss and decide it is time to clamp down on their behaviour. As they realize that they have no limit on their powers, the actions of the guards become increasingly brutal and uncaring.
Based on the infamous experiments carried out at Stanford in the 1970's, this film had it all going for it in terms of being an effective thriller while also looking at the ways that human nature will gravitate towards the cruel once they are placed in positions of power. I decided to watch this film because it seemed interesting on this basis but also very topical considering the behaviour of the US soldiers in the Iraq prisons – mostly poor 'white trash' types who were corrupted when they suddenly found themselves in a position they had never been in before – control. Like them, the characters here gradually get more extreme – just like they did in the real experiment as well. With this topicality it is no surprise that I was easily taken in by the film and was never really bored by it. Being a thriller in its own right, the film has to settle into the eventual action conclusion but even this works pretty well and doesn't detract from what has gone before in terms of interest.
This is not to say it is perfect, because it could have been much better than it was. The constant cutting to Tarek's girlfriend now and in flashback only took away from the film and she could have still played her part at the end with much less time during the main body of the film. Also it became a little too far-fetched for the sake of drama – a recent television drama in the UK did it differently by actually recreating the same experiment as opposed to this film which needed to go harder and faster in order to reach the eventual running and fighting stage! But it still works and, to be honest, it is well worth seeking out for the 'human nature' aspect alone – it had a special resonance in Germany but it is hard not to be put in a thoughtful mood given recent events in Iraqi military prisons.
The cast are roundly good and all slip one way or the other in a convincing manner. Beibtreu is good once he gets past the stage where he is making trouble for the sake of it – this is necessary to speed the descent into cruelty but it was laid on a bit thick at the start. After this his performance is much more evenly balanced and he is a good lead. I struggled to pick up the names of all the others because they were mostly unknown to me but the head guard was very good while the rest of the cast did more than just deliver their pigeon-holed characters, where really they could have been nothing more than 'prisoner who goes crazy', 'timid guard', 'angry guard', 'silent prisoner' etc – they weren't, they were all pretty real people.
Overall this is not the best thing to come to if you are after a sort of documentary drama about the original experiment but it is still a very good film. It is exciting and dramatic while still having a bit of a brain on it – an asset made more interesting by what we have seen in Iraq over the past few months with guards becoming even worse than those we see in this film! Not a perfect film but a well made one that is interesting, involving and exciting and one that is well worth looking up.
The author writes under the pen-name of 'bob the moo' from Birmingham, UK