Experimenter (2015)

Experimenter (2015)
  • Time: 94 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Michael Almereyda
  • Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin


1961. Stanley Milgram designs a psychology experiment in which people think they deliver electric shocks to a stranger in another room. Milgram is trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. His experiment is about conformity, conscience and free will. He doesn’t expect the results, 65% of the subjects deliver shocks that may be fatal, obeying commands from a lab-coated authority figure. Milgram is accused of being a monster. His next experiments are more hopeful. He reignites controversy with his book, Obedience to Authority. Fortified by the love of his family, Milgram carries on, exploring human nature, fighting false perceptions. The film’s style is as playful and provocative as a Milgram experiment, showing how Milgram’s conscience and creative spirit continue to be resonant and inspirational.

One comment

  • How many of us have absolved ourselves of certain responsibilities because “I was only doing my job” or because “I was told to do it”? Consider Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, a man responsible for the mass deportation and murders of millions of Jews in extermination camps. On trial in 1961, Eichmann testified, “I never did anything, great or small, without express instructions from my superiors.” I did what I was told to do, and therefore not responsible for what I did.

    Eichmann was an ordinary man, a prime example of the banality of evil, but how did a civilised human being participate in such destructive and inhumane acts? “How is genocide implemented so systematically, and how do the perpetrators of these murders live with themselves?” wonders Dr. Stanley Milgram (a superb Peter Sarsgaard) in Michael Almereyda’s bold, absorbing, but sometimes diffuse biographical portrait, Experimenter.

    Milgram, an American-born Jew whose Romanian-Hungarian parents fled Europe before the Holocaust, sought to understand human behaviour, specifically its plasticity as compliance to authority leads to moral collapse. The first half hour recreates Milgram’s controversial Obedience to Authority experiment. Two participants are led into a room and assigned the roles of teacher and learner. The learner is taken into another room where he is strapped to a machine. The teacher asks a series of questions and, for each time the learner answers incorrectly, must administer an electric shock. The voltage of the shock increases with each incorrect answer. Milgram observes from behind a two-way mirror as a succession of teachers display the same pattern of behaviour: initial discomfort at hearing the learner cry out in pain, sad appeals to the supervising scientist to stop the experiment, but ultimate obediance in following orders regardless of their awareness of the pain they are inflicting upon the learner.

    When the experiment is over, Milgram asks the teachers why they didn’t stop when the learner begged them to stop, why they chose to listen to the man in the lab coat rather than to the man in pain. Milgram also reveals that the learners were not being shocked at all; the only real shock was the sample shock given to the teachers before the test began. Experimenter is at its most fascinating and focused as it watches the subjects struggle to reconcile their actions, how they could be manipulated into doing something they thought themselves incapable of doing to another human being. Milgram’s methods would be called into question for their ethicality – was he not himself administering psychological shocks to his subjects, did not the situation he manufactured influence the end results – but the data could not be ignored. What happens between the command and the outcome is on the individual – they could choose to stop – but that individual may be susceptible to “a malevolent authority.”

    Experimenter is befittingly experimental, extending the artifice of Milgram’s work into the fabric of the film itself. Milgram often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience to explain his work and offer scraps of his personal life with wife Sasha (an excellent Winona Ryder). Intentionally fake-looking rear projection and breakaway sets reinforce the illusions and perceptions that govern our daily lives. Though generally sobersided, Experimenter is not without its moments of levity such as the scene where Milgram announces John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a roomful of students, all of whom believe this to be another one of his behavioural tests.

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