Who Makes the Nazis?
By Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Michael Almereyda, U.S., Magnolia Pictures

Can fiction filmmaking teach us social psychology? Certainly the idea has its supporters, judging from the recent art-house successes of Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012) and Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014), two movies expressing rather jaundiced views of the human condition, concerned, respectively, with blind obeisance to authority among employees of a ChickWich fast food restaurant leading to a sexual assault and the fallout that occurs when a father forgets his duty to protect his family in a blind, instinctive scramble for self-preservation. Now joining the characters-as-lab-rats subgenre is Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, making its East Coast bow at the New York Film Festival. Almereyda’s film might be described as an experimental biopic, using a variety of techniques, including Brechtian direct-address, to tell of the life and times of Stanley Milgram, beginning with the controversial studies in obedience to authority that he conducted in New Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1960s—referred to in the prologue of Compliance, and much cited in discussions of that film—and continuing until his early death from a heart attack in 1984.

Experimenter begins by establishing the basic premise of Milgam’s best-known operation. Two subjects, strangers, enter a room. One, designated as a “learner,” is isolated in a separate chamber and is tasked with memorizing a series of word association pairings. The other, designated as “teacher,” is told to read prompts to the learner, who then tries to give the correct answer to each cue. When the learner answers incorrectly, which he frequently does, the teacher is asked to administer a series of electric shocks of increasingly high voltage to their wired-up pupil, who is concealed behind a partition. As the experiment continues, the learner’s pained responses to the shocks become audible, but if the teacher should hesitate, he is urged on by an attendant doctor in a lab coat, who is recording the proceedings—all very official. Eventually, the learner ceases to protest aloud, which should be some cause for alarm, as he has previously established himself as having a heart condition.

This script is always the same, for the observing doctor is an actor, as is the faint-of-heart learner—even his protesting groans are prerecorded. The only variable is the subject playing teacher, for though the announced purpose of the experiment is to see the role that punishment plays in incentivizing learning, in fact Milgram, watching, hidden, from a vantage behind a pane of double-sided glass, is studying just how far his teachers will go in inflicting pain on a protesting stranger simply because another alpha-looking stranger in a lab coat tells them to do so. Sometimes the teacher rebels and refuses to continue. More often—a bit over 60% of the time, in the final tally—they would go all the way to the final 450-volt switch, and even agree to flip it repeatedly, like docile executioners.

There is an inherent contradiction in social psychology narrative cinema. An experiment requires the development of a rigid, unvarying framework within which unpredictable variations can be observed. Like the set-up in Milgram’s New Haven office, fiction filmmaking is a matter of actors inhabiting proscribed roles and following a prepared script—what’s lacking, generally speaking, is an equivalent to the element of the unknown introduced by the unwitting test subject. Where a scientist is limited by his results; a storyteller decides what those results will be.

Almereyda recognizes this basic incompatibility, and addresses it in Experimenter’s very form. The nearest equivalent of the test subject in cinema is the audience—that is, you and I, fellow viewer. Instead of trying to reproduce Milgram’s work and life within a traditional dramatic framework, Almereyda draws out a parallel between the manipulation which occurred in the Milgram experiments, and that which occurs in film drama. As Milgram’s subjects are lured into a scenario, then blindsided with the revelation of the scenario’s false pretexts, Almereyda keeps up the pretext of inviting us into a pleasant period biopic, then yanking the welcome mat from under our feet. The film repeatedly draws attention to its own contrivance in a number of ways, not least of these being the fourth-wall-busting narration by Milgram, who discusses everything from the motives behind his experiment—as the son of immigrant European Jews who might very easily have perished in the Holocaust, he is particularly invested in the psychology that made the death camps possible—to what happened after his death.

Peter Sarsgaard, playing soft-spoken, mild of manner, slightly bent as under his burden of knowledge, and deferential of gaze save when he’s staring right into the camera, stars as Milgram, and Winona Ryder is his wife and life companion, Sasha. The rest of the cast is filled with a preponderance of familiar faces, some of them of the can’t-quite-place-them variety. The pink-faced, tow-headed comedian Jim Gaffigan plays repeat “learner” James McDonough, while John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, and Anton Yelchin all appear as teacher subjects. In one of the movie’s most striking scenes, a mise en abyme of imposture, Milgram finds himself haunting the set of The Tenth Level, a 1976 CBS TV movie, where he chats with the actors playing himself and a fictional African-American colleague. (The famous leads of The Tenth Level were William Shatner and Ossie Davis, played here by Kellan Lutz and Dennis Haysbert, two actors who don’t especially resemble them in anything but the fact of their familiarity.) After publishing his findings in groundbreaking 1974 study Obedience to Authority, Milgram pays a visit to an uncannily familiar-but-slightly-off faux–Dick Cavett Show, the set of which seems like a failure of period detail, though it fits to a pattern of deliberately scuttled artifice that runs through the film. This calculated and constant buffeting with recognizable bit players isn’t merely a matter of calling in favors, but more impositions that prevent the audience from slipping into the flow of story—like the jarringly phony rear-projection that’s periodically used, the recurring prop department Coke cans, or the pasted-on neckbeard that Sarsgaard wears during its last act, when Milgram has taken a new social psychology doctorate post at the City University of New York.

While Milgram initiated a number of other studies that are dramatized here, some of which illustrated less pessimism-inducing truths about human nature—his “small world” or “lost letter” experiments, for example, both of which relied on the kindness of strangers, as the saying goes—it is the series of black box dramas that he first staged in New Haven on which his fame, or infamy, rests. Criticized in the scientific community for what is widely perceived as the underhanded nature of these tests, Milgram protests that he was dealing in “illusion, not deception—illusion has a revelatory function,” and notes that many of his subjects went on to thank him for the self-knowledge that participating in the experiment imparted to them. Almereyda has sought to make a film that follows Milgram’s intention to administer to his subjects a kind of shock treatment that has nothing to do with electrical pulse—a moral shock treatment. Unlike that morose old clinician Michael Haneke with his ridiculous claims to “rape the viewer into independence,” Almereyda solicits the consent and participation of the viewer to step down into his metafictional rabbit hole. One possible point of reference is offered when Milgram reads from Speak, Memory, the experimental autobiography of Vladimir Nabokov, a man who reviled Freudian flapdoodle but adored narrative games. Elsewhere, the film quotes from the actual Milgram, such as his musing that “it may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society.” (Interestingly, in a 1967 essay for The New Republic, Alfred Appel, Jr. would describe the universe of Nabokov’s fiction as “Nabokov’s Puppet Show.”)

To borrow the marionette metaphor, Experimenter is a puppet show that keeps not only the strings but also the men who are pulling them—Almereyda, Milgram, and Sarsgaard—always before the viewer, in public theaters including the set and the lecture hall, where Milgram holds forth. “Human nature can be studied but not escaped” is one of his more memorable chestnuts, which recalls a snippet from another direct-address monologue—“Knowing the laws of gravity doesn’t make us free of gravity”—in a film which might be called a forerunner to Experimenter. These words are spoken by the French philosopher Henri Laborit, the sort-of omniscient narrator of a triptych of human stories that illustrate his theories, in Alain Resnais’s 1980 Mon oncle d'Amérique. (Like Milgram’s experiments, Resnais’s interest in the psychology of control might be said to begin in the death camps—specifically the Auschwitz seen in 1955’s Night and Fog.) Resnais’s film ends with Laborit offering a note of hope for humanity imprisoned by instinct: “Until we have shown the inhabitants of this planet the way their brain functions, the way they use it, until they know it has always been used to dominate others, there is little chance that anything will change.” This sentiment is very near to that which Milgram offers concluding his puppet metaphor: “At least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.”

The quality of the ideas expressed in these two films isn’t wholly dissimilar, yet after first seeing Mon oncle d'Amérique I felt that my skull had been cracked open and its contents rewired, while after Experimenter I felt only politely appreciative of Almereyda’s craft and Sarsgaard’s quietly plaintive, melancholic performance. Experimenter is quite capable at detail work like, say, capturing room tone—the feel of a crowded off-campus party in New Haven in the late fifties, or a flyblown office in Bridgeport—but its attempted coup-de-cinema moments, like the rear projection gag or the sudden, inexplicable appearance of a roaming circus elephant trailing Milgram during one of his monologues, come off as flat, forced, or quaintly avant-garde retro. Experimenter isn’t groundbreaking, but a respectable contribution to the existing body of knowledge—and given its evident ambition, this must mark it a failure.