The skeletons in the corporate closet of director Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector are enough to make Enron look like the unblemished patron saint of the Fortune 500. Set in the Paris headquarters of a fictional German petrochemical giant called SC Farb, the film explores the actual and theoretical connections between the company’s mandate to increase productivity while ridding its workforce of undesirable elements with the similar business model of an earlier, efficiency-minded multinational: the Third Reich. And if that sounds like a bit of a stretch, you haven’t heard the half of it. Before it reaches its end, Heartbeat Detector winds its epistemological way through discussions of historical amnesia, the decay of language, and the soullessness of technology. It’s an unapologetic film of ideas—perhaps the headiest of its kind to arrive on these shores since Godard’s Notre Musique. But Klotz’s film more consciously echoes early Godard in the way it binds its dense philosophizing to the spine of a pulpy crime fiction. It’s so French, the cinemas showing it should require a passport for admission.
In a role that relies nearly as heavily on voiceover narration as his one in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but which at least allows him to get up and move around a bit, Mathieu Amalric stars as Simon Kessler, SC Farb’s in-house shrink, human-resources honcho, and all-around productivity guru. It’s Kessler who evaluates potential hires and leads current employees in morale-building workshops, and whose criteria for separating the wheat from the chaff has allowed Farb to reduce its staff by 800 “unnecessary” persons. As the film opens, Kessler is approached in strict confidence by his managing director, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), and asked to evaluate the “mental state” of the company’s CEO, Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale, excellent), who has of late been locking himself away in his office for hours on end and sitting alone listening to Schubert in the backseat of his parked car.
Just what is eating at the ironically named Jüst becomes the central enigma of Heartbeat Detector, an existential crisis (like the one in Michael Haneke’s similarly themed Caché) that grows only deeper and more diffuse with each passing revelation. Along the way, Klotz and screenwriter Elisabeth Perceval lead us down a bread-crumb trail of clues and potential red herrings: Jüst, we learn, was once the violinist in a corporate quartet, the breakup of which affected him greatly. (“Music doesn’t tolerate hierarchy,” says the group’s former cellist.) Or it may be that the old man has never fully recovered from the death of his infant daughter. Or he may be the victim of a conspiracy related to sensitive information he possesses about Rose, whose real name, Jüst claims, is Kraus, and who grew up as one of Heinrich Himmler’s “racially pure” Lebensborn children, the scion of Nazi sympathizers.
Jüst, it turns out, is not entirely free of the shadow of the Shoah himself—perhaps, the film suggests, none of us in Western society are—though the melancholy that has gripped him is as much ideological as it is personal. How, he asks rhetorically, do you reconcile “the human question” (the film’s better French-language title) with the need to make money, to achieve “progress”? And the deeper Kessler tunnels down the movie’s sociological rabbit hole, the more he realizes his own complicity in the often inhuman matters of balance sheets and profit reports, the more he comes face to face with the bloody realities of “just following orders.” Klotz saves the movie’s most disquieting disquisition for last, however, when Kessler encounters another weary historical witness (this one played with poetic resignation by Fists in the Pocket star Lou Castel), who gives him a crash course in the stealth erosion of meaning through the spoken and written word. “We no longer have poor people, only those on modest incomes,” says the man, to which he might just as soon add that we no longer have wars, only military conflicts; no more holocausts, only downsizing.
For two and a half hours, Klotz walks a perilous tightrope between profundity and pretension without ever tipping into the chasm. His film is filled with strange, discursive digressions, including a violent seduction scene between Kessler and Farb’s slinky blonde archivist (Delphine Chuillot, who’s like a Gallic Ellen Barkin), and a techno rave sequence that goes on for close to 10 minutes, culminating in the unforgettable image of a young man still dancing to the rhythmic beats inside his own head at daybreak. In the Hollywood version, those scenes would inevitably go the way of so many of SC Farb’s employees, just as Kessler himself would turn out to be the audience’s vessel of catharsis and healing. But here, knowledge and understanding raise more questions than they answer, and the film ends not in closure, but in openness. It is precisely those qualities that give Heartbeat Detector its epic sense of humanity. Take them away and you’d be left with a leaner but markedly less compelling workaday workplace thriller: Michael Clayton with Nazis instead of lawyers.