Yale, 1961: Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) is conducting one of the most infamous and notorious behavioral studies of the 20th Century. Two individuals who have never met before will choose roles; one will be the teacher and the other the student. The student enters a separate room and is hooked up to a machine that will shock them in increasing voltage when they answers a question wrong. The teacher remains in the first room, asking the student to remember a particular word order. If the student answers incorrectly, or fails to answer at all, the teacher flips a switch and a certain amount of voltage is zapped to the student.
What the “teacher” does not know is that they are the actual subject of the experiment. The student (Jim Gaffigan) is a plant and the experiment is to see how blindly these teachers — played by Anthony Edwards, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin and Danny Abeckaser — follow orders to harm another at great human distress, distress that they are knowingly and willing inflicting.
The Milgram Experiment was a study in coercion. Can people act against human empathy simple because an authority figure told them to? The startling answer is yes.
“The inkling I was chasing, the thing that troubled me: how do civilized human beings participate in destructive and inhumane acts? How is genocide implemented so systematically, so efficiently? And how do the perpetrators of these murders live with themselves?” Milgram asks the camera in direct address. Milgram — the son of two Jewish European immigrants — undertook his study while Adolf Eichmann stood trial for engineering the Holocaust. While the world was trying to grasp what happened, Milgram was trying to understand how it happened.
Milgram’s experiment at Yale would prove to be the most famous of his short-lived career — Milgram passed away in 1984 at the age of 51 — but it was by no means his only experiment. Milgram would go on to work and teach at various colleges and conducts other experiments, mostly about the obedience and human connection, but none would replicate the dark heart at the core of his 1961 Milgram Experiment, which shadowed him for the entirety of his career.
“The techniques change, the victims change, but it’s still a question of how do these things happen?” A Romanian pogrom survivor asks Milgram. “How are they institutionalized?”
Milgram doesn’t exactly have the answer, and neither does Experimenter. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter takes an experimental approach to the bio-pic by allowing Milgram to deliver direct address to the audience and eschewing cinematic realism for artificiality. While these tricks hold the viewer’s attention, they also distract, particularly in a 1976 TV recreation of the experiment, The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert), a scene that comes off more like parody than interpretation.
Milgram opens Experimenter with a quote from Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard as a way to preface the structure of the film: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” To understand the horrors of the past, Milgram found ways to make people live them in real-time. The same can be said of cinema. With a camera, a director can make players relive the past in real-time in hopes of understanding. For all his experiments, Milgram seems to fall just short of understanding his subject’s actions. Experimenter falls equally short. Both are noble attempts, but neither seems to be able to put their finger on the unexplainable.