Baker Academic

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Experimenter, the Authoritarian, and the Green Boy

Peter Sarsgaard plays Dr. Stanley Milgram in the 2015 bio-pic “Experimenter.” While it is perhaps not his most compelling performance, you will hard-pressed to find a better actor than Sarsgaard and the life and thought of Milgram is spellbinding. If you are not already aware of Milgram’s famous experiments with obedience to authority in the 1960s, this film will tell you the story of that controversy. Writer and director, Michael Almereyda proves to be a magnificent storyteller.

***This review will contain spoilers***

A short historical sketch: Dr. Milgram believed that Americans, if given the chance to defy an authoritarian voice demanding that they torture another person, would do so. He believed that if regular Americans were brought into a lab and ordered to send 450 volts into a person with a heart condition, a person begging for mercy, most regular Americans would refuse. Milgram hired actors to pretend to be shocked with dangerous levels of voltage and pretend to beg for mercy. He would then study the moral fortitude of Americans who refused authoritarian commands to continue. Milgram was then going to test similar subjects in Berlin. He believed that Germans would show a higher willingness to continue torture. What he found was that regular people, regardless of race, sex, or emotional vulnerability were willing to obey the voice of the authoritarian. Simple, direct commands by a man in a lab coat were obeyed:

Prod 1: “Please continue.”
Prod 2: “The experiment requires you to continue.”
Prod 3: “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
Prod 4: “You have no other choice but to continue.”

These prods were obeyed while desperate cries "I told you I have a heart condition! Let me out of here!" were heard, met with sympathy, but eventually ignored.

The film asks the question, why did these “normal Americans”—even those who were visibly upset by their own actions—obey the authoritarian voice behind them and not the suffering voice in front of them? Both the study and the film instruct us that the person administering the torture believes that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens even if unethical. If told by an authoritarian voice that this is so, they will act as agents for another person’s will. Milgram called this the “agentic state.”

The “agentic state” is the just-following-orders, just-doing-my-job, take-it-up-with-management mentality. But the agentic state also can take the form of extreme protests followed by distraught obedience. Milgram was motivated to learn how otherwise cool, collected Nazi officers and death camp guards could do what they did. Moreover, why didn’t they (many of them) show any remorse after the war? Answer: the person in an agentic state is willing to suspend moral judgment to comply with the cool, collected voice of the authority.

Cool and collected is how Dr. Stanley Milgram is played by Sarsgaard. As the film amps up from a lab-room dramatization to a Technicolor bio-pic, Milgram is revealed to be the very authoritarian which he fears. He is a dispassionate, controlling, and quietly menacing presence in the lab, classroom, and marriage life. In this way Sarsgaard is the perfect choice for the part of Milgram.

Where “Experimenter” is most compelling is in Michael Almereyda’s use of symbolism as he blurs lines between subjects and objects on multiple layers. I’ll only give a couple of examples. Almereyda plays up Milgram’s Jewishness as a key theme in the movie. The Holocaust is literally and symbolically the backdrop for Milgram’s scientific motivation. The symbol used for this purpose is a meandering elephant in his office hallway. The beast serves as a proxy. It represents a force too powerful and ubiquitous not to exert influence on Milgram’s research. On a level closer to the surface of the narrative, Milgram’s study focuses on the proxy-nature of people who torture others as an extension of a third party’s authority. In other words, the study itself is a proxy for the failure of human morality in the death camps.

Blurring the lines further, Milgram’s wife—played by Winona Rider—complains that Milgram will not receive screen royalties for the fictionalization of his book. As salt in the would, she calls the actor that will play Milgram on television “a goy.” This commentary plays with a meaning beyond the narrative as Sarsgaard (the stand-in for Milgram in this film) himself is a goy. Almereyda repeatedly blurs lines between audience and narrative throughout the film.

In my view the most intriguing use of symbolism and line-blurring plays on a golem theme. Milgram’s son—played Jude Patrick White—is the symbolic golem. In myth, the golem is a creature made by magic from inanimate material (cf. the use of the word גלמ in Ps 139:16). A golem is often portrayed as a soulless creature animated only to serve the will of its master. Almereyda’s nod to this tradition is asserted boldly as Milgram’s son is given green skin and dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. If my suggestion that this symbolism echoes golem tradition it right, it would further express the point that Milgram’s quest to study the agentic state was a quest to create proxies of his own. Why is Milgram's son green? The boy represents a thing made by Dr. Milgram and obedient to his will. The boy then is a symbol for the life of Milgram's research. In short, in order to study something monstrous, Milgram created proxy monsters.

This is a beautifully told story. A longer review might explore the mass-media themes throughout the narrative. Specifically the way that television represents and then creates reality is key. Finally, to promote further intimacy between you and your own television, this film is now available on Netflix.


  1. This would be a difficult movie to watch, for the obvious reasons, and also the not-obvious ones. The experiment is today considered unethical because of the hoax played on its subjects. While no one received electric shocks, it's likely that substantial harm was done to some of the subjects who thought they were administering electric shocks. Researchers who have reviewed Milgram's archives have concluded that many of these subjects were never debriefed, and left the experiment believing that its hoax was real. Other researchers concluded that Milgram did not follow a uniform procedure, that the "authoritarian" in the experiment frequently went off script to coax or badger the subject to continue administering shocks. Most damning of all is that many of the subjects may have seen through the experiment, realizing all along that it was a hoax. Some reported that they repeated low level of shock throughout the experiment, without being noticed. In short: the experiment was cruel, it was administered with cruelty, and the conclusions it reached (as disturbing as they are) are more notorious than scientifically useful.

    Pushing all of this aside is the problem of setting up an artificial lab experiment to test our individual proclivity to be Nazis. There's not much similarity between a lab subject at Yale and a prison guard at Auschwitz. The Nazis built a giant state apparatus with enormous social pressure on individual obedience, where even architects of the Shoah felt no sense of personal responsibility. It is likely that what happened in Germany during National Socialism could happen anywhere, but this experiment does not prove that. The experiment shows, at most, a specific proclivity towards one-episode acts of cruelty when we’re properly set up and given no advance warning. Quite different is state-engineered mechanized genocide over a period of years, across a society of millions of “willing executioners” given widely different jobs, with each participant enforcing the other in ways we cannot map.

    A substantial minority (around 35%, I think) of Milgram’s test subjects refused to go all the way and administer the highest level of shock. (Discover Magazine says that the true figure was 60%). While we're naturally surprised that ANY normal person would participate in this experiment beyond a certain point, there may be more hope in that 35% than we can see at first glance. While Milgram varied the setup of his experiment to see which factors increased or decreased participation (for example, proximity of subject to the "shocked victim," or the presence of the experiment at a university or someplace less prestigious), to my knowledge Milgrim never studied the 35% to see what might have made them different from the 65%. While we might think we could guess what factors made a difference, we don't know where the difference lay, and this is probably Milgram’s biggest failure. We think we’re educating our children not to be Nazis, but we really don’t know what to do to produce adults more likely to tell the authoritarians of our world to go to hell.

    1. Larry, several of these points are addressed in the film. On the matter of the 35-40% of subjects who were not willing to go all the way to 450 watts. This is true. It is also true that 100% of the subjects went at least to 300 watts. And 0% of the subjects checked to see if the other person was okay. That said, Milgram is not presented as a sympathetic figure in this film and his experiments are indeed displayed with complexity showcasing arguments for and against the methods used.


  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Amazingly, Milgram was only 28 when he conducted these experiments. I immediately was exposed to his work as an undergraduate in the 60's. One of the big issues as time went along was the proper treatment and rights of research subjects.

    And, of course, there have been subsequent attempts
    to refine this research and consider interpretations other than "anybody can be turned into a Nazi.' "To mark the 50th anniversary of the experiments’ publication (or, technically, the 51st), the Journal of Social Issues released a themed edition in September 2014 dedicated to all things Milgram."

    Some of this information can be found at:

    For example, The researchers Reicher and Haslam: “The notion that we somehow automatically obey authority, that we are somehow programmed, doesn’t account for the variability [in rates of obedience] across conditions,” he said; in some iterations of Milgram’s study, the rate of compliance was close to 100 percent, while in others it was closer to zero. “We need an account that can explain the variability—when we obey, when we don’t.”

    “We argue that the answer to that question is a matter of identification,” he continued. “Do they identify more with the cause of science, and listen to the experimenter as a legitimate representative of science, or do they identify more with the learner as an ordinary person? … You’re torn between these different voices. Who do you listen to?”

    1. Thanks, Gene. This is a helpful addition to the review!


  3. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Thank you, Anthony. It occurred to me that I didn't include an observation. I guess we can say that what/who we identify with influences what we remember, just as what/who we identify with influences what authority we accept. Both seem relevant to biblical studies.