It was neither random nor coincidental that groundbreaking social psychologist Stanley Milgram was Jewish, nor that his parents emigrated from Eastern Europe before the war.
“The Holocaust was a significant motivation to propel him into the areas he was searching, and he explicitly cited [it] as a background for trying to understand darker aspects of human nature,” says Experimenter writer-director Michael Almereyda. “He wasn’t enclosing or limiting how he saw the world, but the obedience experiments — which are his first experiments, how the film begins and what he’s best known for —were shaped by his speculation about human nature.”
Those 1961 experiments found that most ordinary people would reluctantly follow an order to inflict pain on another person from an authority figure who took responsibility. The controversial results, obtained the same year as the Eichmann trial — though published later — suggested that Americans were capable of behaving in a way not dissimilar from how Germans infamously acted.
Almereyda’s thoughtful, poignant and dryly comic Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, centers on the obedience experiments, the fallout and Milgram’s subsequent career.
One of the finest American films of 2015 yet inexplicably overlooked, Experimenter is now streaming on Netflix.
Almereyda informs the audience of Milgram’s Jewishness at outset and provides several reminders in the course of the film.
“It seemed inappropriate to elide it or blur it or ignore it because it was a key part of his identity, as a man in the world but also as a scientist asking questions about human behavior,” Almereyda says. “I was aware of how deeply Jewish he was, that he married a Jewish woman who also was the daughter of immigrants, that there weren’t that many Jewish people in the community at Harvard and his friends tended to be Jewish, and how that sense of his identity was a huge part of who he was.”
Inevitably, as a Jew and a social psychologist, Milgram’s perspective was affected by the Holocaust.
“Milgram comes out with a very heavy quote talking about how ‘during the Second World War people were exterminated with the efficiency applied to making appliances,’” Almereyda says. “That’s a carefully worded and rather cynical statement, but its impact is resonant to this day. Genocide is a very efficient undertaking these days, and has been throughout the 20th century.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to be mindful of genocide, but we’re cognizant of that as one of the main shadows in recent human history, and he was trying to come to terms with it.”
A soft-spoken, self-described “displaced Midwesterner” and longtime New Yorker, the 57-year-old writer and director received a secular Jewish upbringing in Overland Park, Kan., before his family moved to Southern California when he was 13.
His quirky independent films include Twister (starring Harry Dean Stanton and Crispin Glover), the Pixelvision mood piece Another Girl Another Planet, the vampire saga Nadja with Peter Fonda and Hamlet with Ethan Hawke and Bill Murray.
Almereyda researched and wrote the Experimenter script some seven years ago, inspired less by current events than by the fact that Milgram’s story hadn’t been explored in film.
“It’s abidingly interesting and relevant and compelling,” the filmmaker mused during a visit last May when Experimenter played the San Francisco International Film Festival. “He left a lot of papers behind. and they’re all at Yale and one can have access to them. I didn’t make up much of this movie. Almost everything, even the wacky, quirky things, is verifiably true.”
Almereyda confides that he originally wanted a Jewish actor to play Milgram, but was forced to relinquish that ideal.
“There is, as far as I know, no young Dustin Hoffman who’s a leading man right now,” he says with a smile. “Young Dustin Hoffman would have been a great Stanley Milgram.”
When Sarsgaard was suggested, Almereyda checked out his performance as Jewish man-about-town David Goldman in An Education (2009) and was instantly persuaded.
“He’s a very agile actor, he can do a lot of things and he believes that he could write a book,” Almereyda says. “You can’t say that about all leading men, you know? So whether he’s Jewish or not, he’s very equipped to play the part.”
Experimenter quickly succeeds in shifting the viewer’s mind from the lead actor’s ancestry to the more pressing question of how much empathy we feel for strangers.
“The film is meant to be a bit of a mirror, as Milgram’s work was [meant] to mirror human nature,” Almereyda says. “It’s meant to make you question your own behavior and your own life — not as an indictment, but as a kind of exploration, because we can all be more conscious. That was Milgram’s hope. There’s a lot of ways that immoral or questionable or violent behavior is inescapable in life and in history. But the process of self-awareness is one way to turn the tide.”
Michael Fox is a film critic based in San Francisco.