I like to think that I am a good person. But when I honestly think about it, there is no reason for me to believe that this is due to anything but sheer luck. I have lived a privileged life, and I have no idea what I would be capable of if circumstances ever pushed me to the edge. It is easy to assume that the horrors of this world are the handiwork of deranged, unstable people, but the evidence of history, full of genocide, mass murder and ethnic cleansing shows this to be a dangerous misconception. How is this possible? How do ordinary people, most of whom just want to live comfortably, come together to perform heinous, unspeakable crimes against humanity? In order to answer such questions we have to determine something definite about the fundamental reality of human nature. These are the types of questions that interested professor Stanley Milgram, the researcher behind the infamous obedience experiments which took place at Yale University in the ’60s. The 2015 film Experimenter, directed by Michael Almereyda and presented this past Friday at Cornell Cinema, tackles not only these issues, but the fundamental question of whether any person can ever be free to make their own decisions.
The premise of the experiment is simple. Milgram, played with complete conviction by Peter Sarsgaard, tricked his test subjects, newly christened as “teachers,” into believing that they were administering real electric shocks to another test subject for answering questions incorrectly. However, with each wrong answer, the the voltage of the shocks increased, and soon the “learner” (who was in on the experiment) began to yell, shout to be let out and even go completely silent. Astonishingly, around 65 percent of the subjects proceeded all the way to the maximum voltage, 450 volts, merely because a man in a lab coat politely requested that they continue. These scenes are in many ways the centerpiece of the film, and they unfold with a chilling realness that enhances the sense that these are people no worse than you or me. These are gentle people. People with families. Good people.
The film focuses not just on the experiment, but on the concept of obedience in all of its forms, especially as they manifest in the life of the individual. Milgram may have been some sort of genius of social psychology, but in many direct addresses to the camera, we learn that this persona is just as calculated and shallow as his test subjects’ morality. It is crucial to note that except for the scenes of the experiment as it happens, most of the film is shot with a dreamlike, intimate quality that not only makes it apparent that this is a narrative, but casts doubt on the power of any narrative to convey truth. Artificiality is king, and it is not about the correctness of the story but about how persuasive and convincing the narrator is. In this way, as Milgram navigates the objections to his work and his relationship with his wife, played by Winona Ryder, it becomes difficult to separate the man he is from the man he tells us he is.
This artificiality is carried through to the setting and cinematography of the film. Many of the shots take place in front of gorgeous, but obviously fake backdrops. When Milgram and his wife visit his former professor, the entire scene is shot against fake black and white photographs. This makes the gender politics of the scene even more poignant as we see two men debate the nature of control in front of the women who serve as little more than their assistants. These techniques run the risk of coming across as heavy-handed, but they are implemented so beautifully and unobtrusively that they succeed. Even a simple, almost cliché line like “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards,” is dissected and fragmented until it becomes a beautiful sentiment again. On the whole, it is a beautifully shot, directed, acted and edited film, and one whose message might be even more important now than it was in Milgram’s time.
I mentioned the beautiful editing, and one of absolute best parts of the showing was the chance to have a discussion with the film’s editor, Cornell alumna Kathryn Schubert, M.A. ’05, Ph.D. ’05. Schubert graciously answered every question, which ranged from the insightful to the inane. She explained her unconventional journey from a doctorate in philosophy to a feature film editor, and she offered a refreshing peek behind the curtain of the filmmaking process. This was her first time working as the head film editor on a feature length project, and her handiwork was apparent in many of the excellent transitions and poetic image sequences of the movie. Schubert downplayed the role of her personal philosophies and vision in the making of the film, but it was obvious to this viewer that this was just a perfect example of modesty at its best. Having her there was invaluable and quite revelatory.
At one point Milgram says in the film, “sometimes awareness is the first step to our liberation.” It was quite clear to me that this is a film that has the potential to inspire great awareness in people, not just of their own flaws, but of the fundamental ways we still lack understanding of how the mind works. It is painful to examine your own potential darkness, but as this movie and Milgram’s work make abundantly clear, if we fail to do so then the remaining days of the human race may be short indeed.
James Frichner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.