In 1961, experiments began at Yale University that shook the Earth. Three months after the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, an experimenter devised a study to answer the popular question of the time – “could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?”. The study measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that would (apparently) cause serious injury and distress to a stranger (who was in fact an actor). Unexpectedly, the study found that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey. The man behind this study was Stanley Milgram.
Experimenter, which is out now on DVD, tells his story. Played incredibly by Peter Sarsgaard, the film is based mainly around Milgram’s iconic obedience experiment. But we also see a lot of his life before and after it - before the study we see how he met his wife and devised the experiment, and after it we see how he published a book (which was made into a TV movie entitled The Tenth Level in 1974 starring William Shatner) and how he failed to follow the study with another of equal power, which the film suggests affected him for the rest of his days. Narratively, the film doesn’t do anything largely original – it’s a fairly straight-forward biopic of a man and his work. It is how the story is delivered that makes Experimenter stand out from the crowd.
Director Michael Almereyda wanted Experimenter to be ‘playful’ in nature from the beginning of the production, as he felt that’s how Milgram himself would deliver his story. As such, Experimenter is filled with rather unique traits for a film of this genre. Firstly, many sequences take place in settings that embrace the fact they’re clearly not real. Green screens are used to create blatantly projected backdrops in many scenes, even of basic building interiors. Could this be to reflect the concept of creating ‘realities’ for experimenting, and assuming we will buy it? Are we merely subjects in another experiment of obedience, asking us to accept what we see before us as real? Who knows. But it works. The clearly manufactured world of Experimenter does perfectly represent the unreal world of experimental manipulation that Milgram lives in. Adding to this, Sarsgaard’s Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall in a way that would make Deadpool proud. After director Almereyda watched old videos of Milgram addressing the camera, he felt it was ‘essential’ that he do the same in this film. Telling us his story and letting us in on the experiments with him, it creates a unique experience – especially when there’s an elephant in the room. Watch the film, and you’ll understand what I mean…
While the second half of the film does fall slightly into run-of-the-mill biopic territory, the first half – particularly covering the iconic study – is among the best the genre has to offer. The film oozes style and perfectly reflects the character and the times. Incredible performances from Sarsgaard and the countless ‘oh, that guy!’s playing the subjects lend a huge amount of believability to this tale and make it feel like a documentary. But this isn’t just a film looking back at an old experiment. It’s a film that holds a mirror to us today, and even looks forward. It asks extremely thought-provoking questions about obedience and human nature. While the surprising results of the study were shocking back in the day, they’re still just as disturbing now. And while it would be impossible to truly repeat this study now - due to people being aware of it being staged - I’m sure in another universe where Milgram hadn’t done it, studies today would find the same result.
Having already inspired countless follow-up analysis studies, documentaries, books and even a song by Peter Gabriel; it feels long overdue that we get a proper biographical film of Stanley Milgram. Now that it is finally here, I am delighted to say that it is brilliant. With an incredible performance from Peter Sarsgaard and impeccable style throughout, Experimenter is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of work. It will stay with you for days. As Peter Gabriel sang, “we do what we’re told”.
Watch this film. Obey me! 4/5.
Experimenter at CeX
Get your daily CeX at