Nicolas Klotz’s 2007 film La Question Humaine begins in a deliberately mundane fashion: Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is the in-house psychologist for a corporate industrial firm outside Paris. He counsels management on hiring techniques, conducts evaluations of prospective employees, and when layoffs are necessary he designs the framework for determining which employees should be terminated. In his opening narration he admits without emotion that he likes his job and he’s good at it.
Kessler is taken into the confidences of one of the firm’s senior managers, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). Rose is concerned about Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), the firm’s CEO. Lately, Jüst has been behaving erratically: angry outbursts without provocation, moments of distracted despondency during meetings, etc. Rose wants Kessler to covertly evaluate Jüst and determine whether or not the CEO is suffering from a serious form of depression or mental illness, or if he’s simply overworked.
Kessler (Amalric) meets with Rose (Kalfon)
Over the course of Kessler’s evaluation it becomes clear that Jüst is not insane, but that he is suffering from something more acute than simple exhaustion. Jüst has become haunted by something in his past, something he feels a responsibility for even though it occurred when he was just a boy during World War II. He’s been receiving anonymous letters, but not with any attempt at blackmail. These “letters” are photostats and collages that appear to be based on internal memos written between functionaries within the Third Reich, detailing the day-to-day operations of mobile disposal units throughout Poland—trucks that fatally poisoned Jews with carbon monoxide. Many of these memos are signed by Jüst’s father.
Left: Jüst (Lonsdale) is reluctant to discuss the disturbing letters he’s been receiving
As he digs deeper into the myriad truths and half-truths regarding Jüst, Kessler begins receiving bizarre tracts in the mail himself. These appear to be comprised of his own writings, internal documents he composed for senior staff that were guidelines for evaluating personnel during layoffs. Kessler’s recommendations on how to measure the effectiveness of employees closely resembles the phrasings found in the documents pertaining to Jüst’s father. In both sets of memos, Kessler’s and Jüst Sr’s, maximum productivity and efficiency obtained from the least number of “units” (ie people) is sought, and when a unit is no longer viable the best and cheapest method of elimination is determined.
Kessler pours over Jüst Sr.’s memos and his own, which appear identical
La Question Humaine is based on a 2000 novel by François Emmanuel, which as of this writing is not available in an English translation. Klotz’s film feels more like watching a novel unfold than witnessing a standard film plot. Just as our mind fills in enough detail to enliven imagined action happening on the page of a book, everything about the landscape of La Question Humaine is surreal and indistinct. The outings that Kessler organizes for the company’s employees are dreamlike—the group attends a synth dance party held in what appears to be a cave by rowing a boat through foggy water, and the establishing shots between scenes are generic views of smokestacks and cityscapes that could be anywhere.
The film relies on this slow, creeping sense of displacement to infect and disorient the action. Kessler begins to see that the firm he works for in many ways resembles a developing Reich: that by encouraging large groups of people to tailor their vocabulary and behavior to internal corporate guidelines—independent of any inner sense of morality—it establishes a sense of belonging necessitated by self-preservation. Grave decisions about those who are alienated from this inner group are met with detachment rather than outrage.
Just as Jüst is unable to face the truth of his father’s complicity with the Nazis during the war, Kessler has a breakdown when he confronts his own role within the firm. By fostering the ongoing “normalization” of policies that isolate and remove unproductive units through the use of mundane language and corporate terminology, he is ensuring that the same everyday evil from which Jüst’s father was emerged will reappear again and again.
Rather than providing us with an explosive or satisfying ending, Klotz allows the film to fray at the edges, throwing us a series of unbearable scenes that force us to examine the ease at which we, like Kessler, have made such casual evaluations about others. When Kessler confronts the man whom he believes is responsible for these anonymous tracts, the man examines the papers and muses: “A language which gradually absorbs its humanity . . . Each one of these texts is signed by the name of the system that produced them! Language is the most powerful means of propaganda. It's the most public and the most secret at the same time. The effect of this propaganda seeps into the masses’ flesh and blood." The lasting nausea of La Question Humaine is not how people can fatally dehumanize one another but with our own ongoing complicity in the process.
La Question Humaine was released in the U.S. under the title Heartbeat Detector. It’s become hard to find and is not currently available on any streaming services. DVDs can be found online through third party resellers.