The Nazis of big business

By Nick Johnstone, May 16, 2008
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A new French film finds disturbing parallels between multi-national companies and the Holocaust

Having grown up in a French- Jewish family scarred by the Holocaust, filmmaker Nicolas Klotz had long wanted to find a way to tackle the subject through cinema.

In 2001, while listening to the radio, he finally found it in the form of a discussion about a then new novel by Francois Emmanuel, La Question Humaine, which tells the story of what happens when Simon, a glacial human resources psychologist, based at the Paris office of a fictitious German petrochemical corporation, is assigned by a superior to investigate whether or not the firm’s CEO, Mathias Just, is having a nervous breakdown.

During his investigation, Simon learns of information connecting high-level management to the Third Reich. Becoming obsessed with the details, he starts to confuse the “selection process” typical of human resources work with the mass “selection process” undertaken by the Nazis.

Reading the novel, Klotz found himself fascinated by the parallels Emmanuel makes between corporate culture and the Holocaust. “I’d been trying to find a way through cinema to find a form to speak about the Shoah,” says Klotz. “But as told from my generation, which is not my father’s or my grandfathers. I kept thinking, ‘What can I film?’”

By the time he finished reading La Question Humaine, the question was answered. He passed the novel to his screenwriting partner, Elisabeth Perceval and told her he had a plan to adapt the story, use it to “film the effects of the Shoah today”.

“It has a sort of film-noir atmosphere,” says the 54-year-old director. “And it works on fright and terror. It’s got suspense too. But instead of talking about a murderer, it’s about mass-murder.”

Klotz asked his actor friend, Mathieu Amalric (who stars in the next Bond film, The Quantum Of Solace), to play Simon. He knew that the actor, whose Polish-Jewish family was also brutalised by the Nazis, would bring the necessary intensity to the part. “Mathieu’s Jewish and although he doesn’t see the whole world through this identity, the sensitivity is there so we could work in this eerie way. Simon is someone who discovers he’s collaborating with some kind of fascist system. How can he get out of it? That’s what’s very spooky about the film. Fascism’s like witchcraft. It can pass through a whole number of people. Like black magic. And Simon has to get out of it. And that’s his movement through the film. To get more and more human.”

As the film progresses, Simon, who we learn had earlier prided himself on expertly weeding out alcoholics and ageing executives to improve the company’s economic health and performance, starts to see parallels between his work and the agenda of the Nazis.

“By the end of the film,” Klotz explains. “He’s just one human being among other human beings. He’s no longer selecting anyone for anything.”

Although Klotz says the film has yet to earn any “intelligent attacks” for comparing the Holocaust with the daily carryings on of large corporations, he admits there is scope for such criticism. “People could be shocked by the parallelism. But mostly they’re very interested in the echoes. It’s like a continuum. Like history is still working, not dead.”

Klotz had a hard time discussing the progress of the film with his father. As a child he had learned that his father could not emotionally handle discussing his own father’s death during the Holocaust. “It’s a very emotional thing in his family,” says Klotz, clearly carrying the suffering of that legacy himself. “His father was… it’s very complicated.” He leaves it there, unable to say more.

Klotz’s Previous films by Klotz include Chants of Sand and Stars, about “the Arabic semitic origins of Jewish music”, as well as Paria (2000), set among the outcast “street” communities of Paris, and The Wound (2004), which chronicles the fate of African refugees trying to settle in a hostile France. He sees both films as having been made with a Jewish sensibility. “It’s because of being Jewish that I can look at what’s happening today and be troubled by what’s happening in France against immigrants.”

Returning to Heartbeat Detector, he sums up what the film offers cinema-goers. “It’s not looking into the past, it’s like if the past looks into the present. It’s like bringing the past to the present. The film unites people between cinema and history.”

Heartbeat Detector is on limited release from May 16.

    Last updated: 3:08pm, March 2 2009