Imagine you find yourself at Yale laboratory room with another participator and a man in a lab coat who is giving you the instructions about the study you’re about to participate in (a study that you believe is about memory and learning). You get to choose between two pieces of paper – and of course you’re relieved when you find out that you drew a paper that assigns you to the role of the teacher. The other poor bastard gets to be the learner, strapped to the seat in a separate room from you, and has to answer a series of questions. And whenever he gives you a wrong answer, you are to deliver an electric shock that gets increasingly higher with each wrong answer. Your only instruction is to go through all the questions, to finish the study you agreed to participate in. Even when the other participant starts to scream in insufferable pain and demands to be set free, your instructor tells you to continue. Then, suddenly, the screaming stops – did he die? He stops answering your questions. Which counts as the wrong answer – it requires another shock. You’re still told to proceed. Do you proceed?
Most of us would like to think that we would not. That we would stand up in protest, that we would disobey the orders we were given by an authority figure – that we would choose a well-being of another human being over blindly following the orders. Most of us would like to think that – but that’s not what most people did when such an experiment took place in Yale laboratories in 1961. Around 65% of all subjects went all the way and continued to administer shocks up to the highest levels – levels that would without any doubt kill the learner if he would actually be receiving these shocks.
Milgram, a son of Jewish immigrants who fled from Eastern Europe during WWII, tried to understood how such a horrendous crime, a genocide could ever happened. How did all those people just went along with it? Are we really just plain evil – or are we just unable (or unwilling) to disobey authority or (God-forbid!) think and make decisions on our own? What he found out with this thought-provoking and controversial experiment (that brought him both fame and devastating criticism, particularly about his experiment being unethical), was that “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his action. ” So what we’re essentially left with is the banality of evil – a concept introduced to the world by political theorist Hannah Arendt who reported on Eichmann’s trial in the early 60’s. But what did Arendt meant when she described Eichmann as being evil in the most banal way and what did his banality of evil had in common with most of Milgram’s test subjects? And what (if I may be so bold) do all of them have in common with the Europeans (yes, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, I am looking at you) who are currently spreading anger, hatred and intolerance among people, and would probably, without a second thought, kill all (already completely dehumanized by our politicians and the media) Syrian refugees? If I borrow the quote about Arendt’s scandalous work from Judith Butler herself:
She did not think he acted without conscious activity, but she insisted that the term “thinking” had to be reserved for a more reflective mode of rationality. To have “intentions” in her view was to think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others. What had therefore become banal – and astonishingly so – was the failure to think. Indeed, at one point the failure to think is precisely the name of the crime that Eichmann commits. We might think at first that this is a scandalous way to describe his horrendous crime, but for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking is genocidal, or certainly can be.
One part biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and one part exploration of the mechanisms behind our behaviour (especially our conformity, our willingness to obey authority), Experimenter really couldn’t get released at a better time; at a time that a lot of us are asking ourselves the same question as Milgram did: “How can the people just go along with it?”
As far as the film itself is considered, it would work much better if it would remain more focused on the experiment and the controversy that followed it, and left Milgram’s personal and academic life alone (however smartly it manages to avoid all the clichés that are usually present in biopics). But because the film tries to be both a biopic and an insightful study of human conformity, it ends up being somewhat messy – the whole idea behind the experiment (and the criticism (as well as accolades) that followed after Milgram finally managed to publish his study) is complex enough, and when you throw in his other (not nearly as important) experiments and a few other personal details, the strongest and most important message gets lost in midst of all these different informations and ideas. And because of that the film ends up being not as effective as it could be (although it’s still fascinating, educating, provocative and relevant enough that it manages to stick with the viewer) and probably a little hard to follow for anyone who isn’t familiar with his (or Arendt’s, whose banality of evil is referenced at least twice) work.
Experimenter is thus less about the story and more about ideas. You will be horrified by how easily everyday people can be led into torturing another human being and confused by their answers to why they didn’t stop and went all the way. “I was told to.” The film raises many questions, about our will, morality and the choices we make (because, you know, you can always say “I don’t want to.”), but doesn’t (or rather, can’t) answer many of them.
Film’s cinematography is cold and it’s mise-en-scene minimalistic (the scenes sometimes look almost completely empty), as if it tries to look like a real-life experiment in a controlled environment, with as little outside variables as possible. There are also quite a few interesting (although not always equally good) directing choices – one of them being Dr. Milgram’s speaking into the camera, as if he is delivering us a lecture (as if he is the teacher, and we are his learners): something that Peter Sargaard, whose whole performance is praise-worthy, manages to do brilliantly. But one of my favourite scenes has to be the one with a live elephant walking behind Milgram while he’s in the middle of his monologue – a clear metaphor to “an elephant in the room”, which in my opinion symbolizes how the majority of us don’t want to acknowledge that evil is, in fact, all around us. The real (however banal) evil is in all of us who blindly follow others and who so rarely stop to think: “Is this really the right thing to do? The moral thing to do?”.
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, John Palladino
Running Time: 90 minutes