Stanley Milgram and the ‘Malleability of Human Nature’

October 14, 2015

In Michael Almereyda’s new biopic, “Experimenter,” which tells the story of the infamous shock experiments by the Jewish social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the scientist reveals that his controversial research in the early 1960s was an attempt to explore the root causes of the Holocaust. Milgram had long been haunted by how the Nazis produced “corpses … with the same efficiency as manufacturing appliances,” he says in the film.

Even though his parents had fled Eastern Europe before the Shoah, “He recognized an element of luck in that, as well as the horrible sweep of the extermination,” Almereyda, who lives in New York, said in a telephone interview. “He was startled by that cold-blooded, heartless efficiency. So his experiment was a direct address to the question of how the Holocaust was institutionalized.”

The movie opens in 1961, in the midst of one of Milgram’s studies at Yale University, as the psychologist (played by Peter Sarsgaard) intensely watches the proceedings through a two-way mirror. His subject is told, falsely, that the experiment intends to explore whether punishment is an incentive to learning; the man is instructed to administer increasingly severe shocks to a “learner” on the other side of a glass wall whenever the second man errs in a word-pairing exercise. The subject has no idea that his study partner is actually a member of the scientific team and is receiving no shocks at all.

As the faux voltage escalates, the learner howls in pain, begs to be let out of the room and reminds the scientists of his heart condition. Meanwhile, the subject becomes more and more distressed by his task, clenching his fists and pleading with the academics to check in on the man (they refuse). Even so, he continues to increase the voltage, prompted by the scientists’ polite reminders that he must persevere for the sake of the experiment, and that the responsibility for any fallout is their own. In the end, “He went all the way,” Milgram says. “Most of them do.”

Indeed, as Milgram continues his study in 25 variations, the results remain the same: 65 percent of all subjects eventually administer the maximum electric shock. 

“Milgram was asking deep questions about human nature, about ethical awareness and free will,” Almereyda said. “These are huge existential issues, and they also press in on all sorts of recent and current history, given Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and our government-sanctioned torture.”

“Milgram’s study addresses the reasons for human obedience to a malevolent authority,” Sarsgaard, 44, whose previous films include “Boys Don’t Cry” and “An Education,” said in a telephone interview.  

So what is it about human nature that can push us to follow even the most heinous of instructions? “Milgram came up with the term the ‘agentic state,’ which is when people assume that they are agents for a higher authority,” Almereyda said. “Even though they don’t lose their conscience, they have to dumb it down. Milgram called this a suspension of moral value, which is not exactly the same thing that Hannah Arendt was talking about in [her Holocaust political philosophy book] ‘The Banality of Evil.’  He wasn’t talking about evil so much as the malleability of human nature. But still, this malleability can have results that are horrible and deadly.”

Significantly, Milgram’s study took place at the same time that the trial of Adolf Eichmann was being televised from Jerusalem, where the Nazi war criminal repeatedly insisted that he was “just following orders” while implementing the Final Solution.

Even so, Milgram (1933-1984) was harshly criticized by students, academics and lay people for allegedly tricking and traumatizing his subjects; while his experiment is still cited in numerous psychology textbooks, it remains highly debated to this day. “The study shook people up; they didn’t want to admit or acknowledge the truth that was revealed,” Almereyda said. “It was a natural backlash. But Milgram himself said that if the results had been more comforting and positive, his experiment might have been celebrated. The fact that it continues to trouble us so much has given it a sort of notoriety and permanence in our consciousness.”

Alemereyda, 56, grew up in a secular Jewish home near Kansas City, Kan., and, from age 13, in Costa Mesa. He first discovered Milgram’s work when a close friend was taking a course on the shock study at Bard College in 2006; the writer-director went on to read the class’ single textbook, Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.” 

“The transcripts Milgram included of his study were intriguing,” Almereyda said of the book. “They made me think of what would happen if David Mamet had written an episode of ‘Candid Camera.’ And the more I read, the more I felt that this was something to build a movie on.”

As research for his film, Almereyda interviewed about 25 people who had known Milgram, including the late scientist’s widow, Sasha, played in the movie by Winona Ryder. He also watched all six of the films Milgram made about his experiments and read myriad articles and books on the scientist. His script uses many of the study’s transcripts verbatim and draws on Milgram’s documentaries to meticulously re-create the costumes and set design for “Experimenter.”

Almereyda also incorporated more abstract elements into his filmmaking. The character of Milgram, for example, often breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience. And when the scientist speaks of how the Shoah inspired his study, an elephant walks behind him in a hallway — a metaphor for the Holocaust as the “elephant in the room,” among other interpretations.

Almereyda said he cast Ryder, in part, because the actress is Jewish on her father’s side and lost relatives in the concentration camps.

Sarsgaard is Catholic, but, he noted, his wife, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as their two young children, are Jewish.

“I was interested in how Milgram’s own personal history of being Jewish and growing up in New York during the 1940s led to him asking questions about what had gone on in Germany,” the actor said.

When asked about how he might have responded as a subject in Milgram’s experiment, Almereyda was blunt. “I think everybody has a nice, cozy view of themselves, but I’ve read enough to recognize that one thing Milgram’s results suggest is that you don’t know how you’ll behave until you’re under pressure,” he said. “So it would be presumptuous and a bit of a fantasy to say I actually would not have gone all the way. I don’t have such a fond idea of myself that I could insist what I would or wouldn’t do.”

Yet the film ends on a relatively hopeful note.  “You could say we’re all puppets, but I believe we’re puppets with perception and awareness,” Milgram says toward the end of the movie.  “And perhaps our awareness is the first step toward our liberation.”

Experimenter” opens on Oct. 16 in Los Angeles. 

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