Violence is as Violence Does

The Experiment  (2010, d. Paul Scheuring)

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them.”  The prison guards in The Experiment must maintain order but the way to do so cannot involve physical violence.  Therefore they use what’s available – psychological weapons.  20 men are profiled and hired to live together in a vacant prison.  14 act as prisoners and 6 act as guards.  The experiment is to last 2 weeks.  It lasts for only 6 days.

Very quickly the neophyte guards find a need to establish their authority through duress and humiliation of detainees.   The prisoners are kept in crowded cells and their names are replaced with numbers.  When the prisoners start to protest their mistreatment, the guards turn up the burner.  Prisoners are sprayed with fire extinguishers, gagged and bound to their cell door, deprived of medicine, placed in solitary confinement, urinated on; every creative and “non-violent” torture the guards can dream up within the laws of the experiment (enhanced interrogation, Anyone?).  In the end, the situation does devolve into beatings and killing, even rape, and the experiment ends early.  Or does it?  Perhaps it succeeds ahead of schedule.

Das Experiment, 2001 movie

The Experiment is a remake of the German film Das Experiment which itself is adapted from a novel based on the real Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971.  In the real situation, the subjects were all students and the scientist running the experiment placed himself in it among the guards.  Subjects were arrested, booked, and tried on mock criminal charges.  Nobody died in the Stanford experiment, but I think fictionalization more similar to the real circumstances may have been material for a better overall movie.  The Experiment focuses largely on the most defiant of the prisoners (played by Adrian Brody) and the unelected leader of the guards (played with brilliant sadism by Forest Whitaker).   But the characters lack back story, as do the scientists, represented mostly by robotic cameras on the prison walls.  A better script for me would have included more insight into the exploitation of the guards by the real captors, the so-called

Images: 1971 Stanford Experiment

scientific minds behind the experiment.   Still, the deliberate deterioration of circumstances, to where the psychological need for some to grasp power and allegedly non-violent means used to assert that power, come into violent conflict with the desire for the oppressed to act in protection of their autonomy, is a thought provoking and disturbing scenario.

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