May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 15, 2009
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio.”
(Transmission – Joy Division)
The title Heartbeat Detector is an awkward anglicizing of Klotz’ La question humaine that draws attention away from his abstract universalizing of the tendency towards dehumanization that lay at the root of all Third Reich scheming. The English title refers to technology used by the Nazis during the Final Solution (like a much scarier version of Anton Chigurh’s homing device). It is the sort of image that Klotz wedges often into the film, those which lodge in our memory because of the way their traumatic subtexts appeal to all of our senses. But Klotz’ original title is even more provocative in the way that it links this present day corporate thriller to a brand of evil that transcends the Holocaust and lurks, as the film suggests, at the heart of capitalism in its increasingly globalized forms. It is an evil that has hit the film long before its sequence of events have actually begun, all its characters and consequences, even the unexpected cameo of Holocaust related cultural flotsam like a Joy Division track, are ripples that have since ranged far from the center.
Simon is assigned to psychologically evaluate the oddly behaving CEO (Mathias Jüst) of the French branch of a German petrochemical firm called SC Farb. A psychiatric version of a hitman, Simon has a knack for pruning dead weight from SC Farb’s payroll. He gains access to his CEO’s fading mental health by feigning interest in an orchestra that used to play for the workers in the factory. But through letters, interviews, and odd encounters, Simon begins to uncover the origin of Jüst’s despair in the WW II collaboration between SC Farb and the Nazis. Klotz’s direction is quiet and still, slowly engaging the psychology of its inevitable revelations. Yet his storytelling cuts and leaps through Simon’s investigation, each interview and discovery like a bullet point on a board-meeting docket.
And then the film periodically explodes in barely intelligible orgiastic club scenes followed by their off-kilter aftermath. Its characters become unhinged, freed from the oppressive confines of Klotz’ direction, and wake up on sidewalks after lengthy binges. The centerpiece of the film is a long take lit only by strobe light during which Simon gives himself over to the moral confusion set in motion by his discoveries, partying like a soldier on R&R from the front. I think we come to grips in this scene with the “la question humaine” as one that undermines the battle lines between commerce and conscience, as if it is just as barbaric to be corporate post-Holocaust as it is to write poetry. Corporate-speak is genetically related to the death of language in propoganda. Dilbert is actually a lexicon of cruelty. These more abstract scenes briefly envision Simon in that same space occupied by Godard’s marionette radicals in La Chinoise, Roland in Weekend, or the Native American avatars in Notre Musique – that irritating place where unmanageable political ideas take narrative form, the visual equivalent of Kafkian inside jokes.
The final moments of Heartbeat Detector are a flawless blip of pure cinema emerging from the politically descriptive power of the film. I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of Wittgenstein’s few uses of darkness as a metaphor for the limits of language. What is left in the wake of the Final Solution (both its execution and failure) is a devaluation of meaning that makes it difficult for language and its nationalist associations to cohere. The momentum of narrative revelations in the film create an emotional and linguistic landslide that Klotz represents through the film’s more abstract scenes, but even more directly here in the Shoah-like tangle of sounds and images at the end. It resembles the pithy call and response of Hiroshima, mon amour, but can only script Simon’s solitary, confused, anguished voice. He has arrived at the end of the landslide, immobilized. His recitation of “stucke, stucke” in these final moments of darkness calls to mind the use of the word to refer to the corpses of Nazi victims in train cars and camps. I have often been surprised by how liturgical Resnais’ voiceovers are in their form and effect, likewise the end of Heartbeat Detector is a haunting liturgical call with no expected response.