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Stalag 17 

A creepy film supposedly inspired by the famous Stanford Prison Experiment screens at the Castro

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
In 1971, psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo launched what was to become famous internationally as the Stanford Prison Experiment ( Designating student volunteers as prisoners and guards, he allotted two weeks to study their behavior in a jail he had built. But Zimbardo pulled the plug on the research after just six days, when the guards turned unexpectedly sadistic and the prisoners became stressed and depressed. The notorious results are still studied in psych departments (although not, perhaps, by prison administrators).

Last year, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel used the Stanford study as the jumping-off point for Das Experiment, a creepy portrait of power-drunkenness (with intentional Nazi connotations) that explodes into stylish violence and cheap exploitation. Zimbardo was infuriated, not least by an opening title card that implied that Das Experiment was inspired by actual events. Stanford's attorneys got the mention excised, but not before the film screened throughout Germany. Zimbardo was equally incensed that the movie fails to convey the possible value of the research. "Nowhere is there any sense of why the study was being done or what hypothesis was being tested," Zimbardo wrote in response to my e-mail. "[It's] just fun and games, German style."

Zimbardo is, perhaps, too close to the material to acknowledge the principle of artistic license. But you can't argue with his enthusiasm. Following his Jan. 1 election as president of the American Psychological Association, his goal is "to attack the false portrayals of psychology in the media and [emphasize] the need for the media to be more responsible." Das Experiment screens Friday, Jan. 11, at the Castro as part of the Goethe-Institut's annual Berlin & Beyond Festival, followed by what's likely to be a lively discussion between Zimbardo and actor Moritz Bleibtreu.

Hold Me While I'm Naked There's nothing like a chat with S.F. Art Institute icon and filmmaker George Kuchar to clear the New Year's cobwebs. In contrast to the wannabe auteurs around the country busily honing their Sundance spiels, Kuchar reveals no pretense. He describes Arizona Byways, one of the videos in his show of new work at Artists' Television Access on Saturday, Jan. 12, as simply a travelogue. "People can accompany me on my vacation," Kuchar says in his thick New York accent. "It's kind of an uplifting film because the scenery's pretty." So what lifts his work out of the vast bin of home movies and into the realm of art? "I have no idea," Kuchar replies with a guffaw.

Just because Kuchar avoids highfalutin jargon doesn't mean his work is naive (or worse, faux naive). Showtoons, which he made with his SFAI students about a haunted theater production, mixes elements of horror with musical numbers. "Spirits of the burlesque theater where the play is being staged infiltrate the production," Kuchar explains. An actress performs a striptease, but "instead of pasties, she's got pastries. They're big. They're not bear claws -- they're something else. They're the shape of the things Princess Leia used to wear on her head." Now that's entertainment. For more info, call ATA at 824-3890.

The Groove Tube KRON commences a monthly series of documentaries about the Bay Area with Death in the Sierra: The Donner Party, airing Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 8 p.m. The one-hour prime-time specials are being produced in-house by Ken Swartz and Jim Swanson. The newly independent KRON is also considering programming a skein of docs by local independent filmmakers.

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Michael Fox


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