Experimenter (2015): the banality of evil and our willingness to obey authority

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?

trailer-experimenterMost 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?”

experimenter-stillAs 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.

tumblr_nvhxvdCC5f1qej1i6o3_540Experimenter 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?”.

The Basics:
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, John Palladino
Running Time: 90 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 6.5


8 thoughts on “Experimenter (2015): the banality of evil and our willingness to obey authority”

  1. Hi Veronika.

    I saw this last night and I have to say that I was also pretty disappointed by this. The subject matter is interesting to a point and Peter Sarsgard was reliably excellent – I just thought it was all a bit boring; I didn’t think it was directed well at all, even though loads of respected critics are praising it. In my opinion, had the story been used to make a documentary (something really radical), I think it would’ve stood a better chance at being something more credible and engaging in the long run.


    1. Yes, I agree. There were some pretty bad directing choices (that part when Sarsgaard breaks into a song in the middle of his monologue?). Still, it stuck with me for a couple of days and it made me think… which is why I tried to focus on the more positive aspects of it. But film as a whole really wasn’t that good – which is a shame, because it had an excellent topic to explore and a cast that was more than up to the task.

  2. Another fantastic, thought-provoking piece Veronika. Am I right in saying that English isn’t your first language? Either way, you always get me thinking. 🙂

    Despite the apparent flaws I really want to see this film now. Did you watch it online?

    1. Thank you, Jordan! You always give me the nicest comments, I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Because if I get you thinking it means I’m doing something right, right?

      And no, English isn’t my first language, I’m from Slovenia. Is it that apparent? 🙂

      I’m ashamed to admit, but I downloaded it from the internet. Yes, I’m a pirate. 🙂 But there’s not a lot of films available to watch online in Slovenia and a lot of films don’t get released in our theatres (or they get released a year later than everywhere else – The Babadook didn’t play in our theatres until yesterday!)…

      1. No I just noticed on your twitter profile that you’re from Slovenia. It isn’t obvious at all, your English is fantastic! I’d love to learn a new language.

        And yeah I’d say you are doing something right! You add a little extra to each post that always has me thinking.

        Wow The Babadook only just started playing? That is crazy. We have similar problems, most indie movies never screen here at all… unless they make money in the US. So I know how you feel, I don’t think there is anything wrong with downloading a movie when you have no other way to see it

      2. Thank you, that’s really quite a compliment, especially from someone whose first language is English! I got a little worried before, I thought there were some horrible spelling mistakes in the post that gave me away. 🙂
        Yeah, that’s crazy, I know! Because it was one of the best films from 2014.

      3. Definitely one of the best but it didn’t make a ton of money. At least it made it to your screens eventually! I missed it on the big screen and rented it the day it came out hehe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s