At Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue Oct. 6-17
Provided the tiniest slice of rationalization, people will treat other people appallingly. This can’t be news to anyone old enough to understand Das Experiment, but director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s crackling thriller gives its unsurprising message the power of revelation. The movie is, sometimes literally, a kick in the head.
As that das indicates, the film is German, and Hirschbiegel relies on memories of his country’s authoritarian past to amplify the dread. The script was adapted from Mario Giordano’s novel Black Box by Giordano, Christoph Darnstadt, and Don Bohlinger; the director, a TV veteran making his feature debut, said he was drawn to the story because it “takes place in Germany with German characters who don’t have to act like they were in France or America or England.” Yet the scenario is derived from the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college kids in laid-back California played the roles of guards and prisoners with such ardor that the two-week test was terminated after only six days. One of the movie’s sham prisoners calls a sham guard a “Nazi,” but Das Experiment is less politically charged than much of what happened on California campuses in the early ’70s.
The story’s catalyst is Tarek Fahd (Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu), a Cologne cabdriver who, we gradually learn, has abandoned various academic and professional pursuits. When he spots an ad seeking volunteers for a psychological study, he meets with the experiment’s second-in-command, Dr. Jutta Grimm (Andrea Sawatzki), and then heads to see his ex-boss, a magazine editor. Outfitted with a video camera hidden in a pair of glasses, Tarek signs up for the experiment, intending to write a feature article about his experience. Just before reporting for duty, his cab is slammed by a car driven by Dora (Maren Eggert), who’s in town for her father’s funeral and thinks a good place to sleep would be with Tarek. “Even the worst things somehow make sense,” the soulful cabbie tells her, a remark that is both affirmed and refuted by subsequent events.
After psychological tests, Tarek is assigned to be one of 12 mock prisoners, dressed in hospital-style gowns and supervised by eight mock guards. The head researcher, Dr. Klaus Thon (Edgar Selge), expects cocky but humane Tarek to clash with volatile guard Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi)—which is just what happens. Tarek begins his rebellion in a spirit of altruism, circumventing the rule that requires inmates to eat all of their own meals by drinking the milk forced on a lactose-intolerant cohort. Tarek enjoys the conflict, thinking it a “game” he can win. After all, the wardens are prohibited from using violence against the inmates. But his military-trained cellmate, Steinhoff (Christian Berkel), warns Tarek not to escalate the duel.
Grimm protests when Thon introduces a coffinlike black box as a potential form of punishment, arguing that the experiment should be aborted. Thon refuses, and soon the claustrophobic Tarek is locked in the box while Berus leads the guards on a rampage, attacking not only the prisoners but also Grimm. Fortunately for Tarek, Steinhoff decides to join the battle, and Dora—who’s tracked her one-night lover with a zeal that under other circumstances would qualify as stalking—arrives at the experiment site in time to help.
Not all of the story’s details are convincing. When introduced, Tarek’s eyeglass video camera is connected to a recorder disguised as a portable CD player, but he takes only the former part of the apparatus into his cellblock. The make-believe guards are too poorly supervised, as well, and in real life the building would have some connection to outside help—a fire alarm, say—that the prisoners could use during the final assault.
Such doubts register as the action intensifies, yet they’re swept away by the rush of events. Veteran cinematographer Rainer Klausmann races down tunnels and corridors, camera in hand, and uses blue- and green-tinted images to evoke surveillance and combat videos. Ferociously paced and edited, and making an ironic passage from the Beach Boys to Linkin Park, the film’s last half-hour is electrifying. Thematically, Das Experiment is thin, but it pumps so much adrenaline that there’s hardly room in its veins for subtext.
The strife in places such as Ramallah and East Jerusalem is no game, yet everyday life—and films about it—goes on. Indeed, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories have produced some remarkably wry movies, notably Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance. This year’s “Arabian Sights,” Filmfest DC’s fall survey of Arab cinema, includes two Palestinian films, both more conventional than Suleiman’s but fascinating nonetheless. Rana’s Wedding and Ticket to Jerusalem depict areas that are just a few degrees south of the boiling point, yet the films are attuned more to absurdity than rancor.
The crux of Rana’s Wedding (at 6 p.m. Oct. 6 and 8:30 p.m. Oct. 8) is a father’s ultimatum: Now that her mother is dead, Rana must accompany her father from Jerusalem to Egypt—unless she agrees to marry one of the men on his tally of acceptable grooms (all lawyers, doctors, and the like). Rana wants to alter the terms of this bargain a bit by marrying boyfriend Khalil, a theater director who’s not on the list. And she has a single day, the one on which her father will depart for Egypt, to revise the agreement and actually complete the wedding. That means locating Khalil, a magistrate, and Dad—which entails frequent crossings of Israeli checkpoints—as well as overcoming a case of cold feet. Director Hany Abu-Assad’s depiction of the political situation is muted but potent: At one point, Israeli soldiers cock their guns at Rana when she makes a sudden, exasperated move with her cell phone. Khalil and Rana engage in only small acts of resistance, yet as the final scene demonstrates, simply getting married in the occupied territories is a political act.
Jabar, the protagonist of Ticket to Jerusalem (at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 13), also has frequent encounters with Israeli checkpoint guards, few of whom are sympathetic to his self-appointed mission: showing movies to groups of Palestinian children. A West Bank resident, Jabar happens to meet a schoolteacher who wants him to arrange a screening in the courtyard of her East Jerusalem home, which has been occupied by insolent Israeli squatters. Jabar’s acquaintances—as well as his ambulance-
worker wife—insist that such a screening will cause too much trouble. Some even question the movie buff’s vocation, arguing that Palestinians need food more than films. Jabar is unyielding, though, and most of the skeptics end up helping him with his quest. Like Rana’s Wedding, this film has documentary aspects, showing ordinary existence in a region few tourists will ever visit, as well as a spirit whose indomitability has a universal resonance.
Following Koranic chants from Tunisia to Egypt, India, and beyond, Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s A Thousand and One Voices: The Music of Islam (at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 6) attempts to do for Islamic musical tradition what Olivier Mille’s The Silence of the Angels did for the ancient forms of Christian music that survive in the same parts of the globe. Inspired by a ghostly encounter with his dead father’s voice, Mahmoud travels, listens, and generally accepts the dictums of various strait-laced experts without comment. He also walks a little more gently than Mille, attempting not to ruffle Islamic authorities on such subjects as the status of women—the female voice is “too ambiguous,” one imam says—and the trancelike states sought by Sufis and dervishes. You can’t help but notice that things get wilder—and more interesting musically—the farther the film travels away from Mecca. In Rajasthan and Senegal, especially, local traditions transform Islamic musical austerity into something more joyous and involving.
A tragedy that turns not on hubris but on antiquated customs, When Maryam Spoke Out (at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 13) is the story of a happy marriage that unravels because of the husband’s desire to have an heir. Three childless years and a few medical tests indicate that Maryam cannot conceive, a situation her husband, Ziad, accepts until his mother begins to pressure him. Doctors and soothsayers can do nothing for Maryam, so she allows Ziad to take a second wife—an option approved by the Koran, but so rare in contemporary Lebanon that the first matchmaker the couple approaches simply can’t comprehend it. The arrangement proves awkward, so Maryam agrees to a “temporary” divorce that becomes a permanent rupture. Punctuated by inserts of Maryam’s testimony and a bathing sequence whose significance is not immediately clear, Assad Fouladkar’s film slowly shifts from social satire to something more chilling. It features one of cinema’s nastiest mothers-in-law, but the real villain, it turns out, is far bigger than any one person.
The festival is also reprising a film seen in Filmfest DC this spring, Jalla! Jalla! (at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17), a Swedish romantic farce in which two of the four lovers are Lebanese immigrants. Lebanese-born Roro loves Swedish girlfriend Lisa but agrees to pose as the fiance of Lebanese emigree Yasmin, whose high-strung brother will return her to the old country if she doesn’t marry soon. Enter Roro’s best friend, Mans, who’s just split with his girlfriend. Culture-clash issues aside, Josef Fares’ movie is bland and predictable.
More promising are such unpreviewable films as A Girl’s Secret (at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 and 8:30 p.m. Oct. 10), which uses the case of a pregnant and unmarried 16-year-old to critique Egyptian middle-class values; Beyond Gibraltar (at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 10), in which the family ties of a young Moroccan-born Brussels resident are tested by his love for a Belgian woman; Two Moons and an Olive Tree (at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 15), a semiautobiographical account of boys growing up poor in the ’60s on a picturesque section of Syrian coast; and Mona Saber (at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 17), the tale of a Parisian woman who travels to Morocco to learn more about the heritage of her newly discovered father. CP