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Heartbeat Detector

Heartbeat Detector(2007)

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Heartbeat Detector is an award winning French film, less than a year old, that received a limited release here in the states. It's an intellectual drama about the state of modern corporate life in Europe, where a half century of enlightened progress have supposedly consigned unpleasant things like WW2 and Nazi atrocities to history. But, as if fulfilling the adage that victors grow to resemble their vanquished foes, the past rises to haunt a modern multinational company. Much to his alarm, a promising young company man is forced to see how much his 'efficient' management of human resources resembles ugly hidden secrets in the company archives.

Professor and director Nicolas Klotz assembles a topflight cast for his dark appreciation of evil as an inherited disease. Heartbeat Detector sees modern corporate culture as the culmination of totalitarian dreams.

Synopsis: Simon Kessler (Mathieu Almaric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a valued employee of the French-German company CG Farb, having helped determine the criteria for cutting its payroll in half during a restructuring overhaul. Kessler is asked by executive Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) to carefully investigate the odd behavior of the CEO, Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale of Day of the Jackal), because German financiers are concerned that he may be mentally unstable. Kessler's excuse for interviewing Mathias is to ask about an old company string quartet, in regards to the formation of a new orchestra for morale purposes. But as soon as Simon begins investigating, muted accusations and anonymous denunciations bring up disturbing questions about the corporate past of CG Farb, and the role of top executives in cover-ups.

Heartbeat Detector is a film of ideas, conveyed through a slow-motion detective story. An efficient director of human resources, Simon Kessler manipulates human 'units' to best serve the needs of his company. Older employees at CG Farb work in quiet isolation while younger 'units' uniformly dressed in black suits, escape the stress of their stultifying jobs by engaging in drunken rage parties. Forced to deny human behavior on the job, they relieve the pressure through aggression, music and sex. Kessler interviews a potential hire, a nervous young man who trembles under the obvious strain. His entire future is at stake.

Kessler hovers on a different plane than the other employees. He cannot share his insider information, as is shown when Karl Rose invokes the confidentiality of his role as a psychologist. This gives him a certain power that attracts women like the voracious archives clerk, but it also has a bad effect on his girlfriend Louisa (Laeticia Spigarelli). She finds Simon a complete mystery, a moody mess whose passions give way to erratic behavior. Kessler's is probing the odd habits of his CEO, even as his own personality becomes unstable.

Music has a major place in the psychological life at CG Farb. Kessler unloads his hostility at the all-night rave. The old string quartet broke up because (according to executive Paolini (Rémy Carpentier), creativity and a corporate hierarchy don't mix well. Old Mathieu Jüst obsesses in sad classical pieces, remembering unmentioned traumas from his past.

Mathieu counters doubts of his mental health with counter-claims that other executives are conspiring against him. As it turns out, the archives contain evidence that CG Farb colluded during WW2, providing research to aid Nazi extermination programs. Documents that detail experiments with trucks used to gas people refer to the victims as 'units', the same way that Kessler refers to his company personnel. Kessler has been rewarded for inventing excuses to cast off unwanted employees, using the same kind of heartless criteria employed by the Nazis. Workers with health problems are a threat to safety because they deal with dangerous chemicals and processes. They must be eliminated. Kessler doesn't kill people, but when he 'terminates' their employment he removes them from the path to material success. No wonder that the job applicant lists rising in the company as his first's his only hope of survival.

As it turns out, the company's dirty secrets revolve around the crimes of the fathers of the top executives. One corporate officer changed his name to avoid association with his father, an alleged S.S. butcher. Mathieu Jüst seems a twisted product of the guilt of his previous generation. Older anti-Nazi movies usually present heroes tracking down elusive war criminals, belaboring the obvious idea that Nazism is alive and can return. The crudest of these fantasies bring back Adolf Hitler by science fiction means, keeping his head alive or cloning a new Führer using his DNA.

Heartbeat Detector more realistically describes how the crimes of one generation taint the next. The evidence of CG Farb's guilty activities has not been destroyed and rests in the archive, hiding in plain sight. But the dehumanizing Nazi ideas are alive and well. Kessler reads memos about his company's 'heartbeat detector', a listening device that can detect stowaways and fugitives in their hiding places. The technology makes controlling people much easier. CG Farb doesn't involve itself in the morality of its products. Doctor Mabuse didn't die; he became The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

Heartbeat Detector is a rumination on the roots of modern dehumanization. The film has next to no action and the mystery of guilty executives leads only to an awareness of a general devaluation of human values. Kessler attends a performance of a Flamenco singer with his co-workers. The singer's intensely emotional song elicits no feelings from the audience; even Louise sits and stares with a vacant expression. Behind the company façade all personal relationships are kept secrets, as is that between Mathieu and his personal secretary Lynn Sanderson (Valérie Dréville). Karl Rose entrusts Kessler to investigate the big boss, but when the psychologist concludes that Jüst's odd behavior is benign, Rose immediately accuses the younger man of partisan activity.

Elisabeth Percival's script amplifies associations from François Emmanuel's story. "CG Farb" sounds a lot like the German company IG Farben, the notorious firm said to have provided the industrial base for Hitler while colluding with American Oil Companies. Our only glimpses of the company at work are isolated shots of a chemical laboratory, refinery towers and a plume of crematory-gray smoke against a blue sky. A weird vision shows the company's string quartet trying to play over barking guard dogs, evoking images of musicians in concentration camps. Mathieu's wife is played by Edith Scob, the haunting beauty of Eyes without a Face. Scob's impression from that film conjures associations of dark secrets and hidden guilt. Kessler even follows Mrs. Mathieu down a corridor, remarking (in voiceover) that simply looking at her long neck arouses him. And the poison-pen letters directly link Heartbeat Detector to H.G. Clouzot's Le corbeau. That film, made in France during the Nazi occupation, shows cowardly villagers turning upon each other in an ugly storm of accusations and secret denunciations.

Mathieu Almaric is excellent as the investigator in danger of losing his self-control; he has some excellent scenes with the expressive, baleful Michael Lonsdale. Lou Castel, the star of Marco Bellocchio's 1965 classic Fists in the Pocket, has a pivotal role as an ex-employee who delivers a summation speech about the nature of social evil.

Heartbeat Detector is given a stunning presentation in New Yorker's DVD. The crisp cinematography reveals delicate color shifts to reflect the mood of scenes; Mathieu Amalric's face is bathed in weird greens and blues. The widescreen transfer is enhanced and the English subtitles are removable. The one extra is the original French trailer.

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by Glenn Erickson