A colleague in the realm of Desperado Philosophy has brought to our attention a French television documentary made in 2010 titled Le Jeu de la Mort by Christophe Nick, who has since become a prominent critic of reality TV and its many brands of casual cruelty.
As a basic dramatic structure, Nick adapted Stanley Milgram’s well known obedience experiments in which “teachers” would deliver shocks to “learners”, while prompted and at times badgered by a scientist-in-situ. Interestingly, Nick claims his original inspiration for the experiment came not from his reading of Milgram but from a French version of The Weakest Link, wherein contestants are relentlessly bullied and belittled by the host, while also scratching and clawing at fellow contestants to avoid being culled from the feeble brain trust.
With the simple idea télé, c’est le pouvoir as his rather banal point de départ, Nick then sets out to discover whether that power is sufficient to cajole or compel ordinary citizens to become willing or at least obedient torturers, in public and on national television, and without any monetary incentive. With blinking lights, sexy helpers, a perky/pushy host, roaming cameras, and an audience shouting encouragement, the scenario has an air of inevitability about it, and indeed Nick solicits the proof that he set out to find: 64 out of 80 contestants deliver the full Monty throttle of 460 volts, at which point the victim – quite convincingly performed by an actor – no longer screams but slumps in the chair, ominously silent.
Voiceovers and expert commentary leave little to the imagination, as the basic structure of scripted subservience plays itself out over and over accompanied by a music pastiche that gropes for all the expected emotive buttons.
In post-mortem remarks, Nick said: They are not equipped to disobey. They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to. Indeed there was one contestant whose Jewish grandparents had been tortured by the Nazis. She had wondered all her life how the Nazis could perform such atrocities, yet now she has inflicted the same sort of pain upon a perfect stranger: I was worried about the contestant, but at the same time, I was afraid to spoil the program.
In the process of informing contestants that they had been lured into his scenario via the false premiss of a game show audition, and securing their permission for the film, Nick assured one and all that they had performed “normally”, and – sounding just like Philip Zimbardo – that the context of the situation was responsible for their actions; within his simulacrum of torture, they were not guilty, two thumbs up. Nick reports that most of them are thrilled to have participated in an experiment that could be useful for something, and some of them are ready to do it all over again.
As we contemplate this dreary episode, in which both the subject and the object of critique become unified in the expression of some far deeper truth that is, however, never allowed to push through the totalizing aesthetic of the film itself, we recall the words of Gitta Sereny, who spent seventy hours with Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka; Gitta Sereny, who wrote in her beautiful and moving epilogue: This [essential core], however, cannot come into being or exist in a vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense; not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole.