Heartbeat Detector Review

Other than occasionally taking a look at the inner workings of the film industry itself, the world of corporate big business is not a subject that attracts a lot of filmmakers. This is perhaps surprising since, antithetical though it might be to the artist, the ruthless and cutthroat nature of the modern approach to business affairs is something than not only affects many aspects of our lives in very real terms, but it’s a subject that can prove to be fertile ground for the creative filmmaker. Filmmakers like Lautent Cantet, who in Human Resources and Time Out, would take a look at the direct impact of tough business decisions on workforces and individuals, leaving them struggling to find their place in the world. More obliquely and imaginatively, Christian Petzold’s Yella would find a way to use a fairly standard cinematic device in order to capture the surreal quality of this unnatural world, showing in a highly sinister light the corrupting influence of the eternal need to continually push corporate and individual greed further in the name of ambition and success. Nicolas Klotz also finds a unique way to tackle a similar issue head-on in Heartbeat Detector (La question humaine), but pushes the idea into even more sinister territory.

There is something almost Kafkaesque about the approach adopted by Klotz, since it doesn’t deal with the commonly held perception of the Kafka individual crushed by the wheels of a nameless, faceless bureaucracy or corporate power, but rather shows how the individual can unwittingly find himself contributing to the nature of the machine by unquestioningly submitting to the demands of authority. The drive to dehumanise the individual comes then from within rather than without - not from some higher authority that is either malevolent or neglectful of its lower orders, but from the inability of the individual to resist external forces through his own weakness, or the pitiful drives and impulses that push him to conform. In Heartbeat Detector even the CEO of the French subsidiary of the German-owned SC Farb corporation Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale) is showing signs of being ground-down by these external and internal forces, exhibiting signs of fatigue, behaving erratically and showing symptoms of stress and mental exhaustion. The Deputy Chief Executive Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) wants to know the nature of the problem and whether it will affect the important nature of the corporation’s work and charges one of the company’s employees, Simon Kessler to confidentially investigate the matter.

Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is in charge of staff morale and motivation, seeking to improve the efficiency of the workforce and inspire them with the confidence to do better in their jobs and reach higher targets. Thinking that he is helping the workforce to tap into their own potential and achieve their greatest ambitions, Kessler doesn’t seem to be aware however that rather than improve their lives he is actually dehumanising them further, setting them goals that will only be beneficial to Farb. In an interview, one young prospective employee admits that he lacks basic social skills and not only can’t cook, but even the thought of handling food revolts him. Yet he is perfectly up-to-date with all the latest trade journals and can no doubt find his way around a laptop and various essential mobile communication devices. Even if he is not in a position to recognise it himself, seemingly able to compartmentalise his work and outside interests and find in his various girlfriends, drinking and drugs an outlet to blow off steam, the irony of the work Kessler does is not lost on the viewer, nor the fact that he clearly carries within himself the seed of his own potential destruction.

What is evidently lacking in such behaviour is the “human factor”, the human question of the film’s original French title, and it’s the awareness of the lack of such that Kessler realises is gradually destroying Jüst. Klotz finds an effective and meaningful way of expressing this through music, Kessler discovering in his investigation that Jüst once belonged to a classical quartet who in the old days would perform for the company as the Farb Quartet, a piece of knowledge that he uses as a pretext for meeting the CEO and investigating his mind and behaviour. Again seeking to show the corruption being within, Klotz exploits the use of music in the film as an expression of humanity and shows how that also can be destroyed by order, efficiency and unfeeling proficiency. One executive, Paolini (Rémy Carpentier), formerly also a member of the quartet, suggests that rave music would be better suited to providing a distraction for employees in the current modern workplace. The same can be applied to the corporate environment where there is no room for error, no room for weakness, no room for feelings and no room for being human. Where there is weakness, sickness and failure it must be weeded out to maintain motivation towards the purity of the ideal business model.

The clear fascist implications of this description of the nature of the modern workplace are not unintentional, and it’s the direct correlation that the film makes between Big Business and Nazism that many viewers may have difficulty accepting. There is of course a historical connection, as the name of SC Farb indicates, with the modern-day success of a number of successful major companies having shady backgrounds founded on stolen business assets and the exploitation of Jewish and other prisoners as slave labour during WWII. Heartbeat Detector goes further than this however and suggests that the whole nature of the modern business ethic is fascist in nature, dehumanising the individual in its striving for an ideal, corrupting language with jargon and tech-speak to distance it from real meaning (just as “exportation” may have been used for “extermination” in Nazi Germany, in the business world terms like “restructuring” are used for removing individuals who are no longer of value to the company).

Taking such a stance, the director risks making sweeping and poorly-founded assertions in the manner of Hidden, but without resorting to any Michael Haneke-like trickery and manipulation Klotz makes a much stronger case for the culpability of the individual that just castigating them for being bourgeois. More than making a crude suggestion that the business world is fascist, Heartbeat Detector posits that there is an innate drive in humanity towards such an order and an unquestioning acceptance of it. It’s an intriguing proposition put across convincingly by Klotz and screenwriter Perceval from the book by François Emmanuel, one that by looking at the past clearly warns of the very real and dangerous direction that such practices can lead us towards.


Heartbeat Detector (La question humaine) is released in the UK by Trinity Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is coded for Region 2.

The transfer isn’t perfect, but it does manage to capture well the steely greys and dark shadows that distinguish the look of the film. It’s anamorphic, presenting the image at 1.66:1 and progressively encoded, but even so the presentation is still rather basic. Many of the issues are no doubt down to the film being shot on Super 16, hence there is some graininess, but the image is also prone to the flicker of macroblocking artefacts and noise reduction issues. One or two of the darker scenes, night-time exteriors and scene in a rave club are extremely dark and it’s difficult to discern what is happening in them. The majority of the film is more than acceptable however - tones are essentially accurate, skin tones in particular showing a good level of detail, and the print is free from marks or any serious distracting issues.

Only one audio option is available, a straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, but it is strong, clear and effective, with dialogue clearly discernable and a reasonable dynamic on the music score. The music score incidentally features an excellent original score by Syd Matters.

English subtitles unfortunately are fixed on the print. They are in a white font and are rather large, occasionally becoming intrusive over the image.

Les Amants Cinéma (1:05:45) is a rather free and fluid 'making of' feature that, filmed by Héléna Klotz, gets in up and close on Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval following their discussions about the film before and during its making, seeing them reflect deeply about the approach to adopt in the script and work the agonising task of editing the film down. The feature has fixed English subtitles. An anamorphic Trailer (1:56) is also included.

Weighing in at over two hours long, following its own pace, spirit and rhythm, and making some controversial claims about human nature, the nature of big business and fascism, Heartbeat Detector can be a little ‘out there’, but Nicolas Klotz presents an intriguing proposition and makes a strong case that, whether they ultimately agree or not, gives the viewer something worth considering. The UK DVD from Trinity Films has a few presentation issues, but the anamorphic transfer captures the tone of the film reasonably well and there is a good behind-the-scenes look at the film’s making in the extra features.

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