Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Irregular Heartbeat

In 1978 Elie Wiesel criticized the miniseries Holocaust for dramatizing, and thereby capitalizing on the murder of six million individuals (a controversy recounted in the documentary Imaginary Witness). When debating the possibility of filming Holocaust stories, Wiesel did not outright rule out the possibility, but argued the production in question just was not good enough. Likewise, Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine), which examines the culpability of a German conglomerate in the Holocaust, simply is not good enough in its handling of such sensitive subject matter.

Detector (French trailer here) introduces the audience to Simon Kessler, a cold blooded HR psychologist working for a German multinational corporation. His duties include molding employees into blind obedience and downsizing those that become expendable. Karl Rose, one of his Mephistophelean masters orders him to unofficially investigate the mental state of the French division’s CEO, Mathias Jüst (the significance of whose name is difficult to miss).

Kessler pretends to research the company string quartet Jüst once played in for the sake of a corporate bonding project as cover for his presence in the French office. For his part, the CEO seems a bit gruff and eccentric, but not unfit for leadership. However, Kessler eventually uncovers a batch of anonymous poison-pen letters, sent first to the CEO and then to himself, accusing Jüst and their company of collaboration during the Holocaust.

As Kessler pursues his quarry, reality and illusion begin to blur. At this point, the narrative of Detector becomes problematic, as it is difficult for viewers to discern dream sequences from ostensible real life. Kessler’s own behavior starts to become erratic as well, even though his conscience is apparently stirring. The truth might lie with a member of that seemingly inconsequential string quartet, but it is hard to hold onto a notion of truth in such a subjective environment.

There are some heavy moments of intrigue, as when we get peaks into dark history of certain characters, but the pacing of Detector is certainly slow and its characters are cold. Those are not original sins, but it does make demands on the audience. As Jüst, Michael Lonsdale fares best, compellingly emoting a world-weary intelligence. Mathieu Amalric as Kessler is not simply cold. He remains a cipher throughout the film, never really letting the audience into his head, even when he appears to be losing it.

Ultimately, Detector is fatally undone by its pretensions. There is a very blatant analogy made between the boardrooms of corporate capitalism and the death camps of National Socialism, suggested through plot points and imagery. Such comparisons would be a delicate matter under any circumstances, but in Detector it often seems the Holocaust material is there solely for the sake of the film’s more contemporary commentary.

The issue of European collaboration with the Nazis remains an issue of tremendous resonance and could make for gripping drama. At times Detector shows flashes of such inspiration, but overall, it simply does not handle the material deftly enough. It opens tomorrow in New York at Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza.