“Das Experiment”

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A Psychological Thriller: Das Experiment

A psychological thriller called "Das Experiment" was published in 2001. It is based on the book "The Black Box," which itself was inspired by the "Stanford jail experiment," a real-life incident. The main character is Tarek (#77), and Steinhoff is his cellmate. The major adversary is Berus, who is in charge of the guards who mistreat the detainees. A prisoner named Schutte, who dies, Tarek's girlfriend Dora, who ultimately saves the main character, and a guard named Bosch, who turns sides after being unable to overlook the terrible crimes done by the guards, are other significant characters (Brockmann, 2014).

The Disturbing Experiment

The film shows the experiment organized by psychologists during which the two groups of people adapt to their roles so strongly they break all moral, ethical, and judicial laws. The experiment quickly reveals aggressive and violent nature of some of the guards and a rapid loss of individuality of almost all prisoners (Dischereit, 2014). The experiment causes 2 deaths and 2 trials. More than a couple people experience extreme psychological shock, few guards and prisoners are damaged physically. The experiment ends with the main guard Berus and professor Thon being trialed.

The Ethical Issues

The main ethical issues in the film are the following: nature of evil, origins of violence and aggression, loss of individuality, the nature of free will. Philosophical elements of the film include application of Kant's categorical imperative, Nietzsche's concept of will to power, Aristotle's virtue ethics and many others among which there are the most important (Giordano, 2007).

The Main Protagonist and Antagonist

The main guard Berus illustrates pure evil. He also illustrates Nietzsche's will to power and Aristotle's virtue ethics at some point. He is an example of 100% true and absolute nihilism, he is only concerned with his own agenda and his overwhelming ego, the taste of power is sweet for him, the more he has the more the wants until the point where he becomes a sadistic maniac ready to kill to fulfill his own goals. In case of failure he is always ready to give away his responsibility (in the end he blames Tarek in everything). Berus is the main antagonist because he carefully and cunningly oppresses those around him and uses people as means for achieving goals he himself cares about. Berus illustrates Nietzsche's will to power and Aristotle's virtues ethics but he contradicts Kant's ethical concepts and, among other, Bible ethics from the New Testament.

The Protagonist and his Ethical Behavior

Tarek is the main protagonist. He illustrates and is a good example of Kant's categorical imperative (Kant, 2005). He stays human to the very end while the guards, the prisoners, and even the members of scientific department subject to the will of Berus and directly or indirectly, willingly or forcefully become the prisoners of his masterfully evil leadership. Tarek, at some point, also illustrates Aristotle's virtue ethics but Tarek's virtue is goodness while Berus' virtue is power. Tarek eventually saves everybody but only because he is helped by Steinhoff and Dora.

The Antagonist in the Shadows

Professor Thon is even a more profound antagonist than Berus. Thon is a nihilist because he does not care about the sufferings prisoners come through in order to achieve his goal. He, like Berus, treats people like means instead of treating the like the aims. Berus and Thon, who are both trialed at the end of the experiment in the film, are responsible for all the suffering that characters in the film experience. Their virtue is power and their will is aimed at it which is they fill authority to subject others to their will empowering their own egos by decreasing the importance of other people's lives, feelings, emotions, etc.

The Importance of Supporting Characters

Tarek has more virtues than anybody but he stays an ethically right person. In other words is not a possible killer, a sadist, a maniac. He neither is an easy prey or an incompetent character with lack of free will. He feels oppression when he sees it, and he cannot tolerate it. His inner goodness revolts when some evil is near him. Because nihilism is evil he quickly finds himself forcefully involved in conflict to defend basic, natural, and most obvious truths behind human existence while other give their freedom away easily and without a fight putting all the weight of fight on one person, one real human.

Dora and Steinhoff are also the important characters as without their help it would be impossible for Tarek to survive and save everybody in the end. Steinhoff does not help Tarek when he asks but inevitably joins him afterwards when things get out of hand and scary.

The Impact and Lessons of the Film

My feelings after I watched the film were very strong and disturbing. I heard about the Stanford Prison Experiment before but this film organizes the material so good it becomes even a larger story. In some ways, I felt, what happened in the "cell" was even more that a symbolical representation of WWII and Nazi Germany. The film illustrates the nature of evil and origins of free will because it is a powerful lesson for everybody to consider. This films shows how and why violence, suffering, aggression appear and poison human lives.

The Analysis of Human Nature

I think that the film present a thorough analysis of the human nature and roots of such its features as violence and aggression. As Steinhoff says in the film the experiment is "not a game" as it shows that violence and, therefore, evil exists in average human beings every day, it sleeps there and awaits its time. Neither war conditions of real prison are responsible for cruelty and suffering. People themselves cause fear, terror, and oppression. As Jean Paul Sartre stated "hell is others" (Sartre, 2009).

Good and Evil in Relation to Each Other

I liked the film because it shown that evil and good exists only relatively to each other. Put two people inside a cell and only then good, bad or both appear. The conflict in the film is, obviously, a conflict between two people who have an interest in each other only because they are enemies. One of them is naturally good while another one is naturally bad. Tarek and Berus fight with each other and others suffer. In the beginning Tarek says their fight only concerns them but Berus uses other people to hurt Tarek. Berus uses Dora, guards, professor's assistant and even other cellmates to oppress Tarek and make him suffer. Tarek, on the other hand, begins his quest not because of himself but to protect Schutte because the guards force him to drink milk despite his allergy. Therefore, Tarek starts to fight for a good cause and to defend basic human right for dignity and basic freedom rights; he starts to show guards the lines they cannot cross without a feedback, without an answer, without responsibility. Berus, in his turn, uses power and situation to grow bigger and obtain power in order to evaluate himself in his own eyes by using others and hurting them, by fighting for the wrong cause, for egoism using people as means to help himself.

Individual Responsibility and Freedom

The ethical responsibility in any situation always and every possible case that could be imagine lies with the individual. That is a general, absolute, and closest to truth rule to follow in order to avoid ethical troubles and/or sin. By giving away responsibility one gives away his or her freedom. All people are born equal and are naturally free. This is ground zero, the basic, the principle equally important for 1-year old and 100 year old, male or female, healthy or ill, weak or powerful, white or Asian, Christian or Muslim. Therefore, all people being equal should treat each other as they themselves want to be treated. People should see other people as aims and not means to achieve any goals. There is no virtue more powerful that compassion or empathy. To know this is to know love and to love another human being as much or even more as one loves his or her own self is to love the world.

The Role of Scientists and Individuality

The scientists in the film were divided just like the prisoners and guards were divided by their project. As it was stated earlier and above Professor Thon is the real mastermind behind the events in the film. Even though he is battled by his assistant she is not strong enough to win over his decision to continue the experiment. Thon is a nihilist and a human evil. He uses people as means to achieve his goals which is why is can be qualified as unethical and immoral being unworthy to be called human (which he, unfortunately, is). What is even more horrible about Thon is that he literally and clearly responsible only before himself and that is why his guilt is most serious. In the most critical moment all the guards quoted, repeated, and stated again and again the rules given to them by the scientists and in that way they rejected their individual responsibility for the deeds they were making (Zimbardo, 2011). Not only the prisoners but the guards also lost their individuality. Berus cleverly manipulated the guards just as well as he did control the prisoners, he even obtained power over the two scientists and may it be his will to prevail he would extend the experiment upon the world and made the world his own experiment blaming everything bad on "the instructions" given by scientists/scriptures/traditions/other people etc.

A Symbolic Metaphor and Psychological Commentary

The film is a symbolic metaphor and a psychological commentary on the Nazi Germany, World War II, and even Adolf Hitler personally. Thon and Berus are both like Hitler because they are nihilistic and because they manipulate people treating them as means to become more powerful, important and better in their own eyes. They are pure nihilists, animals among humans, immoral murderers, and potential sadists (Ozihel, 2013). They are the root of all evil as they treat their own power as the most important virtue to achieve. For them the end justifies the means and the end always totally concerned with their ego, their individuality the stands in the center of it all. The can only be individuals by taking other people's individualities from them and they do not bother to kill people to do that.

Popularity and Guilt

The film was popular in Germany because it rediscovered, revaluated, and reminded German people of its guilt. In America that film was never popular because Americans overcame their guilt long ago (Indians, Afro-Americans) or did not feel it in the first place.

The Abu-Ghraib Incidents

Abu-Ghraib incidents have a lot in common with the topics raised in the film. The experiment shows that roles dominate people and because society gives roles people interact in a way that they think they should interact instead if doing it consciously and in a right manner. Put two people in a room and they will eat each other alive or become the best friends or lovers. One thing is sure and that is that everything important will arise between the two people in the process of their interaction and not in each of them separately. Good and evil are relative and good appears where and when evil shows its head. Same goes for evil. In the Abu-Ghraib incidents the roles soldiers were assigned to play were pushed to the extremes because of the lack of empathy and overwhelming egoism of the people who were guilty in the committed crimes and because of the same ill features that higher authorities (Donald Rumsfeld) had.

The True Faces Revealed

In the film the assigned roles overcame individual roles. Only few people revealed their true faces while most of the people in the experiment lost any particular individual features and started to act according to will, orders, and actions made by the few leaders. Tarek showed his true face of a hero. Berus showed his true face of a coward, killer, oppressor and weak and pathetic creature unable to love. Berus was ill and evil before the experiment and probably stayed the same afterwards it. Tarek was good before and became even better afterwards. The shocking events of the film illustrate what a high price and a terrible value freedom and goodness sometimes cost. Without a price, a sacrifice made by Tarek and others evil would prevail which is why the most important things described in the film are universal and overcome the important of the particular events, people, doctrines, ideologies or circumstances. Be it World War II or the Abu-Ghraib incidents some things never change and among them is the never-ending battle between good and evil carried out with the help of love and hate.


Brockmann, S. (2010) A Critical History of German Film. New York: Camden House

Dischereit, G. (2014) The Stanford Prison Experiment: A psychological experiment about the exploration of human behavior under imprisonment. Boston: Grin Verlag

Giordano, M. (2007) The Experiment Black Box: Novel. New York: Penguin

Kant, I. (2005) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Courier Corporation

Ozihel, H. (2013) Stanford Prison Experiment. Boston: Frac Press

Sartre, J. (2009) Philosophical Writings. New York: Penguin

Zimbardo, P. (2011) The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil. Chicago: Random House

April 06, 2023

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