In this insightful and theoretically informed essay, Steffen Hantke examines the "specific social and historical situation" in which Oliver Hirschbiegel's recent German film Das Experiment has become such a critical and commercial success.
The Cologne Prison experiment
Based on the novel Black Box by Mario Giordano, which fictionalises the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in the summer of 1971, Oliver Hirschbiegel's Das Experiment (The Experiment, Germany, 2001) traces the escalating violence within a behavioural experiment conducted at the University of Cologne in present-day Germany. The scientist Professor Thon (Edgar Selge), his second-in-command Dr Jutta Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki) and their assistants arbitrarily divide a group of men, all paid volunteers, into "guards" and "prisoners." The two groups are to interact with each other for two weeks, fulfilling their respective roles in good faith in a space decked out as a prison underneath the university, while the scientists watch on close-circuit TV. The film's protagonist, Tarek Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu), is a washed-out journalist who enters the experiment as an attempt to get back on his feet. The news magazine where he used to work has given him a video recording device, disguised as a pair of glasses, to record the events surreptitiously.
The increasing tensions between prisoners and guards, as the film tells us, are a product of the artificially created absolute hierarchy between the two groups. Because Tarek deliberately exacerbates these tensions in order to create a better story, he becomes the main object of punitive measures from the guards, a pressure he periodically escapes by fantasising about Dora (Maren Eggert), a young women he met briefly before entering the experiment. On the outside, meanwhile, Dora starts looking for Tarek. In Das Experiment's climactic closing scene, her search brings her into the space of the experiment as a belated witness. In this scene, events accelerate and the violence spills over from the carceral space into the world around it. The guards arrest the assistant and Dr Grimm, who becomes the victim of an attempted rape by one of them. Another one shoots Professor Thon in the face with a gas pistol and blinds him. An altercation between another guard and prisoner leaves both men half dead. Worst of all, a prisoner is left to die after being beaten by Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), the unofficial leader of the guards and Tarek's main tormentor.
Finally the prisoners stage an escape, which leads to a chase through the underground passages of the university and a confrontation between Tarek and Berus that ends with Tarek refraining from committing a final act of violent retribution. Though Tarek and Dora are happily reunited in the end, the image that lingers in most viewers' minds at the film's closing is the aftermath of the carnage, the demoralised test subjects and injured scientists, the physical and psychic damage inflicted on everyone involved and the media's feeding frenzy at the sight of catatonic, bleeding bodies.
How to deal with the present
Since Das Experiment is a slick action thriller, competently handled in the best Hollywood style and featuring as the lead (Bleibtreu) one of the young male stars of contemporary German cinema, the film's commercial success is hardly surprising. But its critical success, especially with German audiences, is more difficult to explain. In what way, exactly, is this a movie for its particular time and place? What is the controversy it taps, the sensitive spot it touches? One possible answer has to do with the film's primary setting, which functions as a character in its own right—the space of the prison. It's a labyrinth that creates both the Minotaur and Theseus, the latter a rather compromised and shady version of the classic hero.
These creations of the scientists, in best gothic fashion, take on a life of their own, spin out of control and turn on their creators. One might suspect that in an enlightened, rational political system, the prison always creates a disturbance or irritation, because it reminds those successfully socialised of the persistent failure of socialisation. For a liberal agenda, the prison stands as a reminder of the shortcomings of social perfectibility; for conservatives, it highlights the futility of doctoring social symptoms when the root causes of the disease go much deeper. It is no coincidence that Giovan Battista Piranesi, the visual and thematic beacon of scores of gothic novelists, calls his architectural visualisations of gothic repression Il Carceri (The Prisons).
But this is a general argument that pays little attention to the specific social and historical situation in which Das Experiment has become such a success. Apart from their general ability to evoke anxiety, prisons are not among the hot button issues that have dominated public debate in Germany in the late 1990s. Sociologists and politicians might devote their attention to the problems connected with prison life, but a general audience would not come to Das Experiment primed as an American would.
Other issues did, however, dominate public debate during the time Hirschbiegel made his film. The most crucial one among them was perhaps the perceived decline of amiability within institutions of public life other than the prison. The shootings at the Gutenberg High School on 26 April 2002, for example, dramatically increased awareness of hostile social practices that new-German speak had previously labeled "mobbing." Several fellow students ganging up on another student, or a group of fellow workers systematically harassing one of their colleagues, was behaviour that had made headlines in German papers and news programs through the late 90s. Especially when the outcome of such bullying was the victim's suicide, there was a public outcry lamenting the inexplicable chill that had fallen on what appeared to be Germany's otherwise well-developed sense of solidarity, civil courage and politeness.
Many of the laments over the loss of these civil virtues published in the wake of mobbing incidents conveniently forgot that even during the supposedly "better days," ethnic, social and professional hierarchies had always produced marginalisation and, along with it, the disenfranchisement, persecution and repression of the marginalised. In addition to the politically dubious sense of nostalgia surrounding these Jeremiads, one might also suspect that the alarm over recent cases of mobbing was all the more acute because the aggression that took place seemed to be directed at members of the community—fellow students, coworkers, etc—who did not bear the mark of marginalisation already. In other words, these were good middle-class kids terrorising good middle-class kids, Germans making life hell for Germans, women driving other women to suicide. The uncomfortable implication here is that these acts of social aggression would be easier to understand somehow (in the worst cases of right-wing or chauvinist journalism, perhaps even to be condoned) if the victims were properly "other." This, however, was a cannibalisation of the social, a violent implosion of a well-defined and circumscribed collective, and it was taken to be symptomatic of the new, post-reunification republic.
Images in Hirschbiegel's film vividly recreate this issue for the German audience. In one scene, the guards have dragged Tarek, the leader of insurrections among the prisoners, into a corner that is not covered by the scientists' video surveillance cameras, where they intimidate him. After he is gagged and tied to a chair, one chokes him, another shaves his head and then the group collectively urinates on him. Before this happens, Hirschbiegel reminds us several times that Tarek is a social other, his name marking him as a member of the Turkish immigrant community that has been part of German life since the arrival of the first Turkish foreign workers in the early 1970s. Turkish music plays in the opening scene when we see Tarek in his taxi for the first time. And in a later scene, Tarek corrects Dr Grimm's pronunciation of his last name, to which she listens with politically correct concern, only to repeat her mispronunciation in the very next sentence. The violence by the guards, therefore, echoes incidents of neo-nazi aggression against ethnic minorities in Germany, which have been a matter of increased public concern during the 1990s.
All of this remains an undertone in the film, however, something added but not developed, just like the shaving of Tarek's head conjures up the image of a concentration camp inmate during the Third Reich. Tarek is ultimately coded as "just another German." Hirschbiegel did not cast an "ethnic" actor for the part, and Bleibtreu delivers the role without an accent or any other hint that we are supposed to see the character as Turkish. Perhaps even more importantly, large parts of the Turkish population, especially the middle- and upper-middle class, have become so assimilated into mainstream German culture that they are virtually indistinguishable from Germans of other ethnic descents. This means that, for a middle-class audience, Tarek's being Turkish might not constitute a marker of Otherness at all. Pushing the small signals of Tarek's ethnicity into the background, we suddenly see the scene in question as a dramatisation of mobbing, of violence within a group that is, for all practical purposes, homogeneous. The act of urination reminds us that what we are seeing is atavistic behaviour which marks the regression of a social collective into a mob—the implosion of the very idea of the social.
Tales of the authoritarian personality
If the previous scene suggests that Hirschbiegel primarily targets an upper-middle class audience, one whose fears of becoming the victim of violence from within its own social group far outweigh any anxieties about ethnically-coded violence, then the explanations that Das Experiment has to offer concerning the causes of social violence confirm this impression. The film's rationale for why the violence within the experiment escalates so quickly, even spilling over into the world around it, is informed by a variety of political positions, all of them configured into an upper-middle class ideology of social stability. In this ideology, a critique of patriarchal power underlies what could be called the fascism of everyday life in post-industrial capitalism.
The film's tendency towards abstraction, as it presents the eponymous experiment as social allegory, makes it easy to summarise this critique in systemic terms. Violence, as both the film and the experiment illustrate, is a product of absolute hierarchical distinctions. The internal differentiations within the social totality, as long as it takes the form of a closed system, are subject to entropy unless continuously reinforced by means of violent repression. This tendency toward disintegration is grounded in the fact that an all-male society, one that is ruled by patriarchal interdictions on homosexuality, circulates erotic desire in the conflation or proximity of the sexual and the social without having a proper object to offer for it. Initially, circulation amplifies the value of this desire, which transforms it into a force of social consolidation. But in the long run, the surplus of desire can no longer be sublimated into homosocial bonding and so becomes, in its excess, a source of frustration. As this frustration tilts over into aggression, the intensity of violent repression needs to increase in order to keep up with the system's inherent entropic tendency. And this cycle between repression and aggression continues until the system breaks down.
Only systems that allow for a free circulation of elements between levels and sites of internal differentiation are exempt from the logic of increasing repression. The presence of a gendered, ethnic and social other, either within the system or adjacent to it, as well as its availability as a legitimate subject position, would open a closed system and rescue it from its sure demise. Not only are such open systems internally more stable, but their internal stability prevents them from breaking out of their boundaries and spilling over into the next higher level. Fascism, as Das Experiment understands it, depends on an absolute and hierarchical social order, which furthermore enforces—and is enforced by—rigidly defined regimes of desire. This order requires an ever-escalating degree of violent repression to maintain itself. Its internal instability can only be combated either by extending violent repression vertically, colonising the remaining free spaces within itself, or horizontally, by projecting it outward into other adjacent systems.
Audiences, especially in Germany, can quickly grasp the significance of this allegory in two ways. In showing us the formation and consolidation of a community and its subsequent descent into chaos, the film invites us to recognise this trajectory in Germany's history, from the rise of fascism in the wake of the Weimar Republic to World War II. But in its approach to depicting figures of paternal authority, Das Experiment deviates from this historical allegory. Had Hirschbiegel stayed close to history, his film would have been more strongly defined by the Fuehrerkult surrounding figures like Hitler. Instead, the picture is relevant to a democratic Germany that, at least since the late 1960s, has already come to terms with the problematic father figures of its past. Hence, Das Experiment points to the origins of mobbings and school shootings plaguing a society that prides itself on just how far it has come in eradicating fascist hero worship and the Frankfurt School's "authoritarian personality."
Hirschbiegel takes it on faith that "the bigot of the older school," as Max Horkheimer calls him, no longer represents the new Germany. Hence, his critique extends only a moderate challenge to the liberal consensus that Germany's public sphere has become an equal playing field for men and women alike. The prime representative of the technocratic elite, Professor Thon, is still a man. But Dr Jutta Grimm, as noted above, is his second-in-command. The film makes her out to be a technocrat of the same ilk as Thon, though small concessions are made to the differences between the two. While Grimm wants to abort the experiment as it begins to get out of hand, Thon bullies and seduces her into continuing it. It is also significant that, when the experiment's guards arrest Grimm, the attack against her takes the form of rape, from which all the male prisoners, abused as they may otherwise be, are curiously exempt. Thon's inability to control the social sphere he oversees is not so much created as revealed when one of the guards shoots him in the face and blinds him. That is to say, he never really had control anyway, leaving the control room and allowing the guards to abuse the blind spots in the field of surveillance. An impotent symbol of leadership, Thon serves as one signifier of a phallocentric order the symbols of which have survived the demise of the power they once represented.
While Thon stands for the claustrophobic, dystopian aspect of a space dominated by the fiction of phallocentric power, Dora represents the utopian prospect of movement unconfined by such spaces. She enters the narrative fatherless—when her car slams into Tarek's taxi in the film's opening sequence, she is just returning from her father's funeral. Unlike Grimm's futile struggle against Thon, Dora admires her father, but then she never has to confront him or struggle to supersede him. The film shows us Dora on the beach or in her late father's house, appropriating the symbols of patriarchic power. Among them is a gun, which she starts carrying but, significantly, never fires. With an image of this utopian, fatherless and feminine-coded space, the film ends with Tarek escaping from the ghosts of patriarchy and joining Dora on the beach.
Trouble in neo-liberal paradise
To the extent that Thon is unmasked as an empty symbol of power, his experiment provides the proper space for what Tom Holert and Mark Terkessides have referred to as "the neo-liberal subject." According to the two sociologists,
The values of the counterculture have moved more and more into the centre of a new form of capitalism. The disciplined and obedient cog in the machine was obsolete, and as neo-liberalism marched triumphant, a new ideal type began to emerge: the independent entrepreneurial individual... Supposedly, he works only out of pleasure and to realise his potential—free from endless disciplinary regimes and the administrated life, but also free from a finely woven net of social security... The identity of this individual is acquired through consumerism, a "creative" consumerism emphasising one difference: the free individual chooses certain elements, possibly changes their meaning and then reassembles them into new forms.
In Holert and Terkessides' view, the merciless striving for autonomy of this neo-liberal subject takes place in an economy in which the free market has become omnipresent and, therefore, invisible. Those who want to thrive in such an environment must declare their independence from the ideal of the social. "Neo-liberalism rewards subjects willing to drop out of the social altogether as long as their tightrope act does not threaten the economic and state order." In its extremes, the consequences of these values are grim. "In regard to this ultimate break with society," the authors conclude, "extremist individualists like spree-killers and assassins constitute a neo-liberal vanguard.
Holert and Terkessides also see this neo-liberal subject as a product—and producer—of the militarisation of civil society, which goes hand in hand with Bruce Sterling's oft-quoted idea of the "military-entertainment complex." Das Experiment picks up on this convergence of the military, science and entertainment industries. Everything that happens is recorded on tape, some of it more than once as Tarek's camera competes with those of the scientists (and, ultimately, Hirschbiegel's). Whenever the experiment takes a turn toward the spectacular, the scientists sit spellbound before the surveillance monitors, laughing at the prisoners' jokes or cheering their resourcefulness. Thon raves that the data generated will wow a captive audience of fellow scientists.
By the same token, rumours are making the rounds that the German Bundeswehr is either "interested" or "involved" in Thon's experiment. One of the other prisoners, in fact, turns out to be an undercover military observer. The guards maintain order by marching the prisoners single-file and forcing them to sing. Uniforms are everywhere, from the guards to the prisoners; even the white lab coats of the scientists stand out as the uniform of their profession. In the film's opening shot, one that is unrelated to the plot, we catch a glimpse of a group of men hailing blows upon each other in what looks like a martial-arts class for upper management. When Tarek picks up his video camera in preparation for going undercover, he rings the doorbell of the suburban home where his employer's tech expert lives. Suddenly a military jet does a low flyover, momentarily shattering the silence of this upper-middle class idyll. Taken together, these clues add up to an image of a society in which military values of aggression have spread across the fields of entertainment, leisure activity, professional life and the civil sphere.
In this dispersion of the military-entertainment complex, and in the fragmentation of the social into a set of monadic individuals, a society has come into existence that, with its championing of the fully autonomous subject, has superseded the rule of the Father. Neo-liberal subjectivity is decidedly post-Freudian in its claims of self-determination and self-actualisation. The presence of Dr Grimm and the impotence of Professor Thon illustrate that the problem of gender inequality has long been resolved—at least superficially. What matters is that, in the absence of genuine patriarchy, no superior principle has yet emerged to take its place. What has de facto replaced it is a system that has abolished patriarchy but is lacking a sense of the social—a society, as Holert and Terkessides put it, composed of "single combat experts" that are no longer "conscious entities but operative functions of a society combining an optimal degree of fragmentation with an optimal degree of economic efficiency."
Though Das Experiment goes along with Holert and Terkessides' anaylsis for the most part, Hirschbiegel does not seem quite certain whether he trusts in the supremacy of the neo-liberal subject. On the surface, the social transformation appears complete, as Thon and Grimm recreate for their test subjects the same behavioural parameters they themselves have to follow. It is no coincidence that the prison's architecture is composed of the same modular sheets of semi-transparent plastic as the offices of the scientists. Without realising the irony of the situation, the scientists model their own cutthroat environment. But under the unpleasant surface, Hirschbiegel suspects an even grimmer, atavistic layer of violence. From the guards urinating on Tarek, to the attempted rape of Grimm, social interactions are dictated by the logic of regression. As civilised society reconfigures itself into a lynch mob, paternalistic figures of authority, like Berus and Thon, make a ghostly comeback. The violence they conjure up is all the more extreme for trying to shore up a source of power that exists only in its symbolic function—hence the social didacticism that each act of violence "sets an example" for the others.
The case of Dora: Reason for hysteria?
The question that arises from Hirschbiegel's equivocation is whether he would prefer a return to patriarchy proper, if only to steer clear of the alienation and social indifference bred by its contemporary successor. Some scenes, in their handling of gender, seem to suggest just such a conservative move. There is a perverse sense of relief, both for the characters and the audience, when the attempted rape of Jutta Grimm provides Tarek the opportunity to rescue her from "a fate worse than death." Ugly as this scene may be, it sets right a world of gender roles that had been uncomfortably askew in an all-male world. Similarly, Dora is presented as a figure whose function is that of civilising the male. Tarek fantasises about her whenever the claustrophobic pressures of the experiment weigh too heavily on him, and her physical entry into the prison—her witnessing gaze—seems to have the power to hinder, even arrest the ultimate decline of social relations. She does not have to act: for her to be there is enough. Though she arrives too late on the scene, her mere presence offers a proper object of heterosexual eroticism, shifting the entropic excess of desire into the proper channels.
This is ultimately where Das Experiment opens itself up to criticism. Considering its acute critique of the sources of fascism in everyday life, Hirschbiegel mobilises surprisingly conservative notions of femininity when mapping out the political alternatives. As the film ends with an iconic still shot of the heterosexual couple in intimate communion, a return to older forms of patriarchy seems the lesser evil compared to the social anarchy fostered by neo-liberalism. But then, whether viewers will accept this counter-model as a legitimate or practical utopian alternative will depend on their political predispositions. If one were willing to abstract something like a feminine principle from Dora's concrete presence, then the problem of an all-too-conservative gender politics in Das Experiment is defused. Her fatherless existence, the open spaces of her father's house and the unlimited expanse of sand, sky and water where Hirschbiegel places her together with Tarek in the closing shot, are all signs of potentiality. To the same effect, when Dora is alone Hirschbiegel often shows her in silent contemplation, inactive, thinking, physically immobile. This is the position of hesitation before the moment of action, and it is given great iconic significance in the film.
Between a return to more traditional forms of patriarchal order on the one hand, and the paramilitary glamour of Hobbes' "war of all against all" celebrated by neo-liberalism on the other, Dora marks a space in the middle—a third position. Her character represents an alternative to the choice of the lesser evil. However, by having her and Tarek frozen at the moment before they fill this space with concrete historical content, by leaving them at the end of the narrative before they take action, Hirschbiegel gets off without having to tell his viewers what exactly this third position will be. How they will fill the space, what they will do, we never find out. But demanding that Das Experiment show us what comes next may be too much to ask its makers. May those who consider this a failure of nerve on the director's part, a lamentable case of cold feet, step up and give it a go.