Sundance 2015: "The Experimenter" Review

Photo by Jason Robinette | Courtesy Sundance Institute

Based on Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments in the 1960's, "The Experimenter" follows Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, as he carries out his famed experiment and the fallout he must deal with afterwards. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, the film premiered last week at Sundance. 

If you are not familiar with Milgram's experiments, check out this video. The experiment that opens the film is his experiment on obedience which he performed during his time at Yale. Following WWII and specifically the trial of Adolf Eichmann - the Nazi SS member who was responsible for the logistics and transportation of Jews to the ghettos and death camps - Milgram wanted to understand how the Holocaust happened. During the much publicized trial, Eichmann showed no remorse and insisted that he was only following orders. This gave birth to the experiment. 

The basic premise was to test how much pain a subject could inflict on another at the orders of and authority figure, in this case, the "experimenter." A "learner" and a "teacher" were designated and the teacher read questions and issued an electric shock to the learner if the question was answered incorrectly. With each incorrect question the voltage would be increased on the shock and the leaner would start to scream in pain and ask for the experiment to be over. The trick was that the "learner" was a man involved in the study and there were no actual shocks issued. A majority of the time the true subject, the "teacher," went all the way to the end of the line, even though they heard the learner scream in pain and ask to stop. Very few actually stopped the experiment and wouldn't continue. And if you're wondering if they were forced to continue by the "experimenter," the authority figure in the room? The answer is no. The experimenter simply stated that the experiment must continue. 

The film employs some interesting techniques, including breaking the fourth wall and having Milgram talk to the audience from a seemingly omniscient point of view, offering a sort of documentary style voice over to lead us through his story. Sarsgaard gives a great performances with Winona Ryder playing opposite as his wife Sasha. Throughout his life, Milgram continued experimenting and perhaps the more interesting aspect of the film is how, while this isn't a truly experimental film, the director experiments with us, the audience, taking us in and out of the story and at times, asking us to work really hard to suspend our disbelief. 

A truly fascinating experiment in and of itself, the film continues on and follows Milgram as he dreams up new experiments. Ultimately, the obedience experiment would be his most famous and infamous, garnering criticism from the academic and professional community.