La question humain

 (Nicolas Klotz, France, 2007) 143 minutes


Director: Nicolas Klotz
Producers: Sophie Dulac, Michel Zana
Screenplay: Elisabeth Perceval
Based on the novel La Question
by Francois Emmanuel
Cinematography: Josee Deshaies
Editor: Rose-Marie Lausson
Music: Syd Matters
Mathieu Amairic (Simon Kessler)
Michael Lonsdale (Mathias Just)
Jean-Pierre Kalfon (Karl Rose)
Lou Castel (Arie Neumann)
Laetitia Spigarelli (Louisa)
Valerie Dreville (Lynn Anderson)
Edith Scob (Lucy Just)
Delphine Chuillot (Isabelle)

Reviews and notes

2007 Copenhagen, Gijon, Sao Paulo

Simon (Mathieu Amalric), a psychologist in the Paris subsidiary of a German multinational, is assigned to investigate the mental state of his chief executive (an impressive Michael Lonsdale, of Bond villain fame) by means of the initially bizarre ruse of reforming the old man’s string quartet. He slowly discovers dark company secrets that stretch back to the Nazi era and policies regarding 'the Jewish question' that not only threaten his own frail psychological well-being but also, more worryingly, his ability to function as a 'good soldier' in defence of his company’s corporate dream. Radical director Nicolas Klotz and his filmmaking partner Elisabeth Perceval have managed to fashion a dystopian thriller as chilling, atmospheric and relevant as anything French cinema has produced since Godard’s Alphaville.
- Wally Hammond, Time Out.

In his essay 'Politics and the English Language' George Orwell described political language as "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." Written in 1946, his plea for cant-free clarity of expression resonates strongly today when politicians adopt the argot of managerial 'efficiency' and soldiers talk of bombs as 'ordnance' and dead civilians as 'collateral damage', and when your employers regard you as 'human resources' – that's to say, humans as resources, as 'things'. Or, in a German word that surges from the nightmare of history in , as 'Stucke' – 'pieces'.

Nicolas Klotz's film is about what such words conceal, and beneath modern corporate talk of 'restructuring' it finds the euphemisms of Nazi extermination programmes. In adapting Francois Emmanuel's novel La Question humaine (2000), Klotz and screenwriting partner Elisabeth Perceval have created a film whose soupy, miasmic feel brilliantly conveys a common intuition that behind the slick carapace of corporate life lurk truly barbarous forces. But to equate the operations of modern-day capitalism with genocide, isn't that going too far? Is it not obscenely disrespectful even to countenance the comparison?

HEARTBEAT DETECTOR is as much about the horror of having to countenance the comparison as it is about the comparison itself. It is therefore about realising the responsibility that history should force upon us but rarely does. The character through whom the shock of this realisation passes is Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric), an ambitious psychologist in the human resources department of German petrochemical firm SC Farb (any resemblance to IG Farben, suppliers of Zyklon-B gas to the death camps, is surely deliberate). Kessler is a 'golden boy', as the French call their top young executives, and the film sees him unravel as company intrigues whittle away his self-belief.

One of his superiors, Karl Rose (a rapier-like Jean-Pierre Kalfon), entrusts him with a secret mission to investigate his boss, Mathias Just (Michael Lonsdale), who is suspected of being mentally unfit for his job. Kessler confirms Rose's suspicions: his boss sips whisky at work and curls up in his dead son's cot. But Just sees through Kessler, realising that he is spying for Rose. His revelation that Rose is the offspring of a Nazi 'Aryanisation' programme and has channelled money to a far-right German group marks the moment of Kessler's transformation. He doesn't know what to do with the information other than go easy on Just and hence lose Rose's trust.

The Shoah has been interpreted as a historically unique atrocity that silences language and forbids representation but also as a founding act of modernity. In this latter view, dehumanisation of certain races colludes with a technocratic language of 'efficiency'. While HEARTBEAT DETECTOR opts for the latter interpretation, the theme of 'silenced' language is explored at the levels of plot and texture alike. Kessler and Just both receive anonymous letters from former Farb employee Arie Neumann in which excerpts from an actual historical document of the Nazi era concerning 'improvements' to gassing-vans are interspersed with extracts from a modern corporate training manual. In both, says Neumann, the language is "dead, neutral, technical... a language which gradually absorbs its own humanity."

But the power of the film owes as much to how it expresses this theme in the interplay between voice, image and music to create a woozy, subjective quality, as though from within Kessler's own fractured psyche. This is reinforced by his voiceover and the implication in his opening words ("Where do I start?") that this is a story told retrospectively, history already on the verge of becoming a memory. The film employs a range of music – facto, flamenco, classical, rock and electronics – to create a world parallel to language in which pure expression may be found.

HEARTBEAT DETECTOR is not exclusively about how historical memory resurfaces as trauma; it is also profoundly political in asserting the modern corporate world as the context of this traumatic return. And while it can be seen as one of a number of recent French films about the human cost of neo-liberal economics (from Laurent Canter's Human Resources to Siegrid Alnoy's Elle est des notres), it is also the third work in a trilogy by Klotz and Perceval which includes Paria (2001) and La Blessure (2004), the first about homelessness, the second on immigration. In HEARTBEAT DETECTOR, the pair have made one of the most remarkable, formally ambitious and properly disquieting films in recent French cinema.
- Chris Darke, Sight & Sound, May 2008.

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