"La question humaine": Detecting the Signs of Life By Nil Baskar

in 45th Gijón International Film Festival

by Nil Baskar

In the beginning of La question humaine (Heartbeat Detector, 2007) there is barely a hint of what is to come, of the remarkable progression that will take place in the film. There is the opening shot, an intriguing, yet hardly dramatic tracking shot of the faded parking lot numbers, accompanied with a vaguely melancholic tune. Then there is smoke coming out of the factory chimneys. Parking lots, numbers, factories, chimneys. Alienation, post-industrial ennui, vacant spaces … In cinema, these images don’t add up to a meaning as instantly as they do in writing — in fact, they reveal their significance only much later. For those not familiar with the book by François Emmanuel, Nicolas Klotz’s La question humaine might as well be set as a contemporary drama of capitalist alienation, fashioned as a kind of a neo-noir corporate thriller.

Simon (Mathieu Amalric), the film’s hero, is a psychologist overseeing the human resources department of a German petrochemical company, based in Paris. His job is to train and “motivate” other managers, but also to decide who gets fired, when the company has to “restructure” its production. But despite the power his position yields, his private life, as that of any corporate retainer, loyal and without imagination, is just miserable and frustrating, interrupted by episodes of violent and self-destructive compulsion. However, when his scheming and villainy boss Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) orders him to spy on the allegedly insane president of the company, Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), Simon’s defenses start to crack. Jüst, a mightily world-weary old man from a different time, is somebody who can feel the music in a painful, physical way, something Simon is completely incapable of — as a defining sequence with singers in a bar demonstrates. A curious transmission takes place between both men, setting the zombified executive back onto the track of humanity. And when — halfway through the film — Simon discovers the dark truth behind his mission, a new sensibility is born out of his revulsion; an openness towards the world where he starts noticing details, hearing songs, feeling human again.

At this point, a shift of perception takes place — from a position of detached observation, we are suddenly pulled into a personal vision of a disintegrating world and forced to recognize other meanings in the images on display. Parking lots, numbers, factories and chimneys become — in retrospect — an index of a hidden trauma of the past, but also one that has survived to define modernity. The dancing, performing, moving bodies that Simon encounters on his descent towards the past become impregnated with a sort of a morbid beauty — in contrast with the crude textuality of the documents that invade the film. The absurd madness of Nazi engineers and their pedantic recommendations on how to increase the “efficiency” of the gas trucks (an actual document of Holocaust), is later superimposed with another document, taken from a corporate psychology manual, on how to “weed out faulty workers” or detect immigrant stowaways by “picking up carbon gas emissions in the breath” and, even more efficiently, installing “heartbeat detectors, which enable us to detect signs of life”. Rarely have mere renditions of text produced more chilling effects in cinema.

By now, the film’s philosophical concerns take over in explaining how a language of perverse euphemisms seeps into bodies and flesh in a concrete way; redefining, measuring and quantifying life as mere numbers, as pieces. This “breaking down of language, a dead language … neutral, invaded by technical words” — as the true hero of the film, the dissident former employee Arie Neuman (an inspired Lou Castell) explains — is linked directly to a certain crisis in representation. Perhaps most obviously in the striking ending itself, which seems somewhat indebted to the ideas of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy — especially his essay titled “Forbidden Representation”, where he is concerned with the problems of “representing the unrepresentable” (one should also note that Klotz’s previous film La Blessure (2004) was based on Nancy’s novel “L’Intrus”, which was also used by Claire Denis for her eponymous film). Nancy’s solution is, simply speaking, to leave an open gap in the representation or, in other words, to make the act of writing — or shooting a film — a part of the text itself. La question humaine, it seems, achieves something similar yet radical in a different way, when, at the very end, the images of cinema and the voice (which is trying to redeem language) clash one against the other: as Simon’s voice is describing images of death, we only see images of life, of people coming together, a community forming. And even when the images are gone, faded to black, they remain dominant in their absence, asserting the power of images over the text in a much more violent way as it seems at first.

Beside Nancy and Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) — which somehow constantly hovers over the film — there are also further philosophical and inter textual undercurrents present; one could certainly add Arendt on the technocratic nature of evil, Sebald on both the recovering from a desensitized amnesia as well as revealing the traces of violence in physical space, and from there perhaps also Resnais — not the obvious Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955) but Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), the author’s love letter to the monstrous old Bibliothèque Nationale where all the memory was kept hidden. In light of this, it seems logical that Simon — on his first step towards the past — can only meet one of the four members of the Franck Quartet on the new Bibliothèque’s iconic platform, under its four looming towers of Law, the Time, The Numbers and the Letters. One could say, exploring this analogy a bit further that La question humaine is, in a way, resisting exactly these four regimes, by disassembling them down to the bare testaments of their barbarity: the ordering, the history, the bodies and the proofs.

Touching on the film’s final gesture once more, there is a possible objection against the way it underlines the film’s intentions in an, admittedly, heavy-handed way. But isn’t this the only way that a film can possibly assume a position and escape a much more problematic ambiguity? The representation of Shoah (or any other genocidal highlight of human history, for that matter) has been a heavily contested cultural battleground since Adorno’s original prohibition (as well as the cinematic one with Rivette), so one should approach it with a transparent commitment. A film that deliberates things in a painfully clear way — after it has been exploring all the ambiguities — aims for exactly that kind of a transparency. Perhaps this is also a conviction strongly supported by the authors themselves, Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval, the scriptwriters, who appear to be genuinely driven to discuss it in a very polemical and generous way. They themselves stand as the best proof, inseparable from their work, that this is a film of ideas in a way that few filmmakers have the will or the capacity to conceive.