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Heartbeat Detector

Regarding the Pain of Others


“To equate the operations of modern-day capitalism with genocide, isn’t that going too far?” Chris Darke asks in Sight and Sound, wondering whether Heartbeat Detector is pushing things to extremes as the film equates capitalism with Nazism, corporations with death camps. Darke doesn’t really pursue this point. He addresses the question to propose that Nicolas Klotz wants it to be asked as an aesthetic proposition: “Heartbeat Detector is as much about the horror of having to countenance the comparison”. This is an affective confrontation, where Klotz pursues the question as provocation, and yet if, by the end of the film, we are moved by corporate darling, human resources man Simon Kessler (Matthieu Amalric), it is through Klotz showing the crisis of a human being in the face of history. We ought to be moved as much by history as by the man whose crisis comes out of that confrontation. This would be the rethink of someone who lets history envelop him. It is an historical coming of age film, about someone who initially lives not so much in his own world but a corporate one that allows for a narrow ontology, a shrunken sense of being. How can Kessler understand himself not in the confined world of corporations, but the expanded world of history and geography, as he realises his CEO’s family was responsible for Nazi atrocities?

A film like Heartbeat Detector could of course be dismissed not as provocative, but its opposite. Others have already explored and expressed what the film examines. Klotz wants to draw together modern German corporations and Nazi Germany – was this not partly what The Red Army Faction were saying in the seventies and what Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah explores in the eighties, through the continued existence of the companies that supplied the vans and gas for the Holocaust? Do Klotz’s provocations not contain the predictable by virtue of already being covered more radically elsewhere? One could claim Klotz catches himself in the paradox of provocative staleness.

However, one thinks not; and to explain further it may be useful to invoke Jacques Rivette, and his fascination with conspiracies in films as varied as Paris nous appartient and Secret defense, and most especially the idea of a sort of psychoanalytic conspiracy thriller. Like Rivette, Klotz seems interested not in the authority of conspiracy, but the vulnerability of the conspiratorial. How can the filmmaker suggest a world that weakens the self and yet epistemologically opens the character up to other possibilities? One of the problems with conspiratorial thinking is that it looks to create a meta-narrative in a world full of doubt. It tries to draw together strands that justify the self and explain the world on selfish terms. As John Orr says in The Art and Politics of Film: “The source of disconnection is then read as conspiracy, what they do to us, or at it most desperate, me. In Freud’s classic formula, delusions of grandeur accompany delusions of persecution.” But Klotz here creates not a delusion of grandeur; more a sort of illumination of culpability. On the one hand Kessler realises he works for a company with strong historical links to the Nazis; on the other that his ruthless method of laying off workers for the company resembles the prejudices of Nazi ideology.

Now often there are two sides to the conspiracy thriller. One is the paranoiac figure evident in Freud’s formulation, and where the individual has to convince the world that their point of view is valid otherwise madness envelopes them. The other is the blasé individual who comes to realise the world is more dangerous than he is willing to accept, and the film the process of that acceptance. Conspiracy Theory covers the former; The Firm the latter. The fine and too easily forgotten Cutter’s Way is a great example of its combination: with Jeff Bridges the pragmatic gigolo character; John Heard the embittered veteran certain that conspiracies are afoot. And how can we forget The Odessa File, since it bears ostensible similarities with Heartbeat Detector as Jon Voight pursues a veteran Nazi? At the beginning of the film he is so cynical he comments on the money to be made on photos of Kennedy’s assassination (it is set in 1963), and yet when he receives documents from a recently deceased Jewish man he pursues the Nazi with moral vigour.

But if we invoke Rivette it is to propose that Klotz’s interest in the conspiratorial is not especially about the strength of the material but the fragility of the self. If in the blasé conspiracy thriller a character loses his confidence, and in the mad conspiracy thriller the character saves his mind, in Klotz’s film Kessler loses his self and potentially finds his soul: this is the conspiracy thriller as soul sustenance against the mass produced impersonality Kessler has for years been feeding off. This doesn’t mean though that Klotz is looking for a full character arc for Kessler: a move from internally inert corporate man to soulful, self-conscious historiographer. A more fruitful way of looking at it would be to say he absorbs otherness not as a kinetic charge but as a cerebral realization.

When halfway through the film Kessler is at an all night rave he experiences otherness as an otherness within himself; an ecstatic otherness that takes us out of oneself without giving ourselves to another. It is close to the ecstatic as Milan Kundera describes it in Testaments Betrayed, when he talks of the Greek definition meaning, “being outside oneself”: “‘To be outside oneself’ does not mean outside the present moment. Just the opposite: ecstasy is absolute identity with the present instance, total forgetting of past and future.” Is the rave otherness without the other, an ecstatic moment in the moment? When he is back at work a colleague with whom he seems occasionally sexually involved reminds him of how he treated her at the rave, but Kessler says he doesn’t remember. It is an otherness that need not remotely alter the structure of the self, that need not be a threat to it.

But what about a self that undertakes more complicated and emotionally taxing explorations of otherness; a self with a past and a future, and acknowledges the past and futures of others also? Such a person would be “ontologically secure”, in R. D. Laing’s reckoning in The Divided Self. He would “have a sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a continuous person.” As such, he can live out in the world and meet others; a world experienced as equally real, alive, whole and continuous.”

Kessler at the rave loses himself so completely that he doesn’t seem to recognize his occasional lover, and ends up fighting with her as if with a stranger. He appears to have no close friends, few cultural interests, and a sort of pallid emptiness exemplified by the grey skin he shares with his colleagues. He might occasionally see another, more serious, lover, and occasionally listens to music that carries meaning and feeling, but they exist on the periphery of his life, not at its centre. He is in a world of competitive necessity, where human failing and feeling are irrelevant next to corporate precision. This is surely a world of ontological insecurity as Laing would describe it elsewhere, in his book The Politics of Experience. Here he quotes J. Henry’s Culture Against Man, where the writer talks of the humiliation of one boy who can’t reduce 12/16 to ¾. As the teacher waits for an answer the hands all around the boy go up as everybody seeks to offer the right answer. A young girl called Peggy is given that opportunity and seizes it. In Henry’s words, “Boris’s failure made it possible for Peggy to succeed; his misery is the occasion for her rejoicing.”

Kessler’s success has certainly been the cause of others’ misery; he is the company golden child after laying off over a thousand workers, removing those who are seen as a liability to the company due to their own human failings: there are now no alcoholics at the firm; they’ve been weeded out. If we take into account that Kessler seeks otherness without the other in raves (and for that matter in a quickie during work hours with the woman he dismisses at the rave) and that his human resource employment relies on the dismissal of others, then he is an impressive example of the ontologically underdeveloped.

So what we have in Klotz’s film are several elements that take us beyond the conspiracy thriller. There is the historical self colliding with ontological underdevelopment, and where this underdevelopment of being risks collapse in the face of historical enormity. It is as though Kessler has been trained to ignore history, empathy and the self, for corporate returns, but this requires a kind of careerist blind spot, a way of looking at the world that does not lead one to think about the back story of the German multinational one works for.

But what happens when your very task involves this investigation? Where before Kessler laid off hundreds of workers, now he is asked to compile a report on only one: the French CEO Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale). However, if laying off numerous workers was a ‘horizontal’ task – requiring quick resumés of their immediate weaknesses – keeping tabs on Jüst is a ‘vertical’ affair, a dizzyingly vertiginous journey into one man’s heart of darkness as the CEO seems to be suffering a collapse that may not be too far removed from, but much greater than, Kessler’s own self-realizations. Kessler finds out Jüst knows that Kessler’s colleague, Karl Rose (Rivette actor Jean-Pierre Kalfon), who instigated the investigation into Jüst, was a child of the Nazi lebensborn, Nazi orphans, and Jüst reckons he is the victim of a company plot. Jüst’s own father, it becomes clear, was a Nazi collaborator, and the company itself was involved in modifying vans for the purposes of gassing the Jews.

What we have here are two crises, really: Kessler’s crisis of conscience, and Jüst’s crisis of being. This is the difference between a crisis of conscience that remains near the surface of being; and a crisis that sits deeply in being. Now one reason why we believe Heartbeat Detector is vastly superior to so many investigative, paranoiac films like The Pelican Brief and The Firm (both essentially corporate thrillers) is the way in which the crisis sits in the characters. Here even the crisis of conscience digs deeply as Kessler realises that his own conscience must possess a degree of guilt if we use guilt in this context to mean an action in the past that one holds oneself responsible for retrospectively. When near the end of the film an ex-employee whom he fired in the past now sends him a document showing similarities between Nazi literature and corporate training manuals, Kessler sees how many of his own deeds in the recent past cannot be undone and were hardly innocent.  However, such events are relatively minor and recently committed: his guilt can almost pass for shame, a space small enough for self-recognition that needn’t destroy the self i8n recognizing past misdemeanours.

But what would happen if one’s crisis is not of conscience (however intense), but of being, where a life of ontological insecurity results in a non-being within being? To help explain the sheer weight of Jüst’s crisis it may be useful to offer a Freud anecdote and a passage from Laing’s The Divided Self. In The Psychopathology of Every Day Life, Freud explains how a subject years before was sitting a philosophy exam and was asked whom he knew had taken up Epicurus’s theories in later centuries. He mentioned Pierre Gassendi, whose name he had overheard in a café, and who had been described as a pupil of Epicurus. The examiner was surprised and asked how he knew this, and the subject answered that he had long been interested in Glassendi. It was a name in later life he could never recall, saying ”my guilty conscience is, I think, to blame for my inability to remember the name in spite of all my efforts.” In The Divided Self, Laing writes of a young man who felt so guilty that he tried “to sever the ties that related different aspects of his being together.” “Peter tried to uncouple himself from anything of him that could be perceived by anyone else. As he tries to uncouple the outer world from his inner self, he sets about trying to turn his being into non-being.” What happens though is that he hides from himself and thus creates authentic guilt out of inauthentic guilt. In inauthentic guilt lie all his feelings of worthlessness, of smelling bad when nobody can notice anything, of feeling that people can see through him. But the authentic guilt resides in how he deals with this: he shuts himself off from the world and allows his inner self to die as a consequence. “I’ve been sort of dead in a way. I cut myself off from other people and became shut up in myself.” He finally believes you have to live in the world with other people. If you don’t something dies inside.”

We don’t want to get too far away from Klotz’s film, but these anecdotes can allow us to get paradoxically closer to it, to understand that within the conspiratorial aspect lies a psychoanalytic dimension. What we have here is deep-seated psychoanalytic guilt on Jüst’s part; existential, immediate guilt on Kessler’s.  It is as though Jüst has so taken advantage of the opportunities in his life that he has at the same time buried huge aspects of it: his father’s history and the company’s history as he became a powerful man. In Freud’s brief anecdote about the person who forgets the name of someone whom he uses so opportunistically in an exam, we have a good if relatively superficial example of buried guilt. But a name forgotten is hardly the same as a life buried, though the principle remains the same. We could say the more areas one leaves irretrievable to memory; the more ontologically insecure one becomes. Freud’s subject can’t recall a name; Jüst’s whole past seems an effort of recollection. Indeed it appears so difficult to resurrect that it is its resurfacing that traumatises him. As he has been brought to consciousness, or conscience-ness, by an employee, Neumann (Lou Castel), whom Kessler had laid off, and who used to play in the same company quartet as Jüst, so he begins to unravel: sleeping in a child’s cot, crying when he hears a recording of the quartet, and apparently contemplating suicide. He has become as ontologically insecure as Peter in Laing’s case study, but where Peter’s neurosis represents inauthentic guilt, isn’t Jüst’s authentic – in the sense that he is justified in collapsing under the welter of an unexamined guilty conscience? If for Peter the problem is not the guilty conscience, but the inability to act in society because of it; for Jüst it is the reverse: he has functioned for too long on a repressed guilty conscience and it comes back to haunt him in his advanced years after Neumann’s prompting: Neumann we find out as a young boy witnessed Nazi actions committed by Jüst’s father.

The film explores through a combination of the conspiratorial and the psychoanalytic what it is to possess ontological insecurity. The conspiratorial element isn’t there especially to reveal the plot; more to reveal the self. Even in the finest American conspiracy films – like Pakula’s The Parallax View and All the President’s Men – the self is secondary to the conspiracy. Warren Beatty’s character in The Parallax View may be brainwashed at one stage in the film, but this is about holding on to one’s sanity against the onslaught of shadowy figures out to get you. What interests filmmakers like Rivette and Klotz is the self as more important than the conspiracy. They are interested in what happens to the self when assumptions are destroyed: what alters the phenomenology of the self, rather than how does one justify oneself in a world out to annihilate your existence? In Rivette’s Secret defence, Sylvie needs to reassess her relationship with her dead father after she hears that he pimped her sister to a rich industrialist. What intrigues Rivette is not the story as a reality to be searched out, but a rumour impacting on the present, fracturing the personality of a daughter who has to reassess her relationship with a man – namely a father – who has long since been dead. As she pursues the industrialist who was also responsible for killing him, so she quite literally chases shadows. The industrialist may very much be alive, but what does she want from him: to kill him for sleeping with her sister, for destroying the memory of her father, or being behind that destruction of the father who was forced, financially, to sell his daughter to the industrialist?

Neither Klotz nor Rivette want too readily to narrativize their conspiracy story, and the notion of industrialist as evil is more a conceit than a reality; but it is a conceit to open up the doubt of being, to create Laing’s ontological insecurity. Within this the filmmaker wants then to work with degrees of ontological insecurity through shallow and deep guilt, inauthentic and authentic guilt. Let’s say that Kessler’s guilt is shallow and his guilt authentic as long as he doesn’t hyperbolize his sense of culpability. Though Neumann sends both Kessler and Jüst exactly the same information – info concerning improvements to gassing vans, and extracts from a corporate manual today – that does not mean they are both supposed to respond to it identically. If Kessler’s guilt is shallow by virtue of his youth and his distance from the Nazi regime, then his purpose is not to feel inauthentic guilt in relation to what he is not responsible for, but to except what he is culpable of. There will be no war tribunals for Human Resource psychologists who have laid off hundreds of workers, and thus for Kessler to feel the guilt of a Nazi officer is absurd, and thus Kessler is a few stages down the rung of guilt than Just who has worked for so long in a company that has benefitted from Nazi actions, and whose father was indeed a Nazi himself. Yet momentarily to have one’s culpability hyperbolized is no bad thing if it forces upon oneself a re-think of the dubious values one has been living by. Hasn’t Kessler’s job demanded he live off other people’s misery; exactly what those who were piling bodies into and out of the vans did also?

Here paranoia curves and learning curves meet, and we might be reminded of another recent paranoia curve film that asks questions of the comfortably off French bourgeois: Hidden. When director Michael Haneke insisted he didn’t want give the film a categorical ending, he said that though he used the thriller format to ask questions about blame and conscience, he didn’t want to provide an answer. After all, he said in The Observer, “who am I to presume to give anyone an answer on how they should deal with their own guilty conscience?”

The key question here is how should Kessler deal with his own guilty feelings? He seems to do so by questioning the work he does, and by showing an interest in the illegal immigrants Neumann now works with. Indeed the title comes from a device that is used to detect exactly how many humans are in a van as it passes through customs, a device that would have been ‘perfect’ for the Nazis who wanted to make sure all of their victims would be dead before opening the van doors. It is often said that it is never too late to mend one’s ways, but Heartbeat Detector takes the truism and examines it in relation to two characters for whom it hardly means the same thing. For what is left to mend for Jüst is his mental well-being, as his conscience seems to be literally driving him mad. A man of his advanced years can commune with his soul but can hardly act in the world. The depth of the crisis here coincides with physical immobility. For Kessler however the shallowness of culpability and physical mobility allow him surely to ride out the crisis. Chris Darke may say in his review that it is as though the film comes from within ‘Kessler’s own fractured psyche’, but that implies a crisis greater than the one Kessler himself is going through. It is the ego that is fractured rather than the self, as if ontological insecurity is a threat yet not quite a reality. Neumann’s wake up call to Kessler, and Kessler’s own burgeoning awareness of corporate mendacity, means that he wakes from a light sleep; Jüst from the darkest night of his soul.

However though we’ve indicated that Kessler’s crisis is relatively negligible, perhaps much of its weight – and Darke’s idea that the film comes from his own fractured psyche – lies in the film’s colour scheme. This is a colour film close to monochrome as Klotz films a world that is reduced to black, whites and greys, and anaemic beige. The colour on people’s faces is drained, and one of Klotz’ major achievements here is to film people and objects as though everything is spiritless. This is a world of corporate takeover, but where what is taken over is man as much as companies. How Klotz’s film asks can man win himself back? In this sense Heartbeat Detector is a twofold enquiry. The major one concerns Kessler and Jüst, the secondary one is how to film the difficulty of a self in a particular type of world. Even Jüst’s apartment, for all its luxury, seems emptied of content: as though content is not merely the objects one has, but almost the ‘content-ment’ of an object. We may be proposing that the film isn’t especially seen from Kessler’s fractured psyche (despite certain moments of surreal incoherence), but we do believe that the film shows us a perspective consistent with a world dis-contented, as though all the contents in the houses and offices lack a certain self-containment. Klotz films from the side of discontentment, from the side that sees objects aridly, without meaning and purpose.

This is again of course very different from some of the American films we’ve invoked, where in a film like The Firm or The Pelican Brief the colour scheme is consistent with an American Dream; it is the activities that are the problem, not the milieu. The cars, the flats, the offices, the private jets are all presented initially as desirable; the only reason not to desire them is because of the dishonesty required to possess them. But Klotz wants to drain the colour out of materialism, as though the contents of one’s home, the contents of one’s office, require at the same time an ontological contentment that is clearly here missing.

It might seem tasteless to invoke Heidegger in relation to a film about Nazi guilt, and even more so the theme of immigration that the film also touches upon and which gives the film its title. Yet it is Heidegger’s ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ that interests us here. “We do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is, because we are dwellers.” Heidegger adds shortly afterwards, in relation to ‘sparing’, to keeping an essence of a thing “to dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its essence.” Is the corporate mindset on show here incapable of keeping anything in its essence: that its purpose is to drain existence rather than replenish it?

This is the corporation as vampiric, as sustaining itself to the detriment of other modes of living. All the faces in the film look like they’ve been drained of all their vital fluids; these are vampirised souls with bloodless bodies. Heidegger’s proposal though is that for man to build, dwell and think he needs not to drain but to spare. As Heidegger says, “The sparing consists not only in the fact that we do not harm the one whom we spare. Real sparing is something positive and takes place when we leave something beforehand in its own essence…” The corporate environment leaves nothing essential; it seems to have no essence but instead aporias that someone such as Jüst falls through, and that Kessler hovers over. This is the presence if you like of the ontological abyss, where the self isn’t grounded in the weight of the past that it is always indebted to, but propped up by a cosmetic relationship with reality that must avoid history. Was it not that great corporate man Henry Ford who said “History is bunk”, and, even when amending it simply said “I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me. I didn’t need it very bad”? The point of the corporation is not reflection but expansion, and there is a nice phrase from Max Frisch where he says “technology…the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” The film explores what happens when its characters who work at a technological corporation do begin to experience the world. For Jüst it is the vortex of history; for Kessler the possibilities in a world beyond the corporation.

Obviously if we are invoking Heidegger, then this can only be a partial invocation; for if Heidegger is fascinated by dwelling in one’s own living space, Heartbeat Detector is interested more in the nomadic. It is not geographical grounding that Klotz is concerned by especially; more an ontological underpinning that starts quite literally with the heart and not the earth. What is it to be a being, Klotz asks, and there is much irony in the idea that immigration control creates a heartbeat detector to heartlessly refuse people entry into the wonders of western civilization. Can by the end of the film Kessler detect his own heart, even if it happens to be a heart of darkness? As he becomes himself mildly nomadic, as he searches out where Neumann lives, so one senses a man whose crisis may not be great enough to generate internal collapse, but might be forcefully there to create a space for the sort of people he fired. Where before he works from the corporate idea of use value; by the end of the film is he sympathetic to the self as more than the sum of its parts, to the indivisible significance of their souls, and not least because he seems to have found his own?

Heartbeat Detector seems to explore is the problematic of a conspiracy thriller where the conspiratorial is less important than the self-realization. This self-realization can collapse someone for whom denial has been lifelong; and create space for others in whose denial of others’ humanity has been short-lived. What man needs, it seems, for his ontological security, is an on-going comprehension of a detector of the heart to see the complex outer and inner selves of others.

Susan Sontag has argued, in Regarding the Pain of Others (as well as in her earlier On Photography), that “vulgar and appalling images” are deadening our experiences of violence and pain. “I call this argument conservative because it is the sense of reality that is eroded. There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority.” One of the problems with an aesthetics of cruelty, of films that want to enquire into the iniquities and violence in the world, is how to present them. Many films have moved in the direction of the pyrotechnical; in utilising special effects advances to get closer to ‘real’ violence, of which Saving Private Ryan was seen as a breakthrough. Others, like Tarantino, have absorbed the conservative aesthetic Sontag writes of and created an aloof relationship to violent images often accompanied by a humorous tone. Klotz wants us to regard the pain of others though not through representational vividness or representational aloofness, but by a dispersive empathy where it is through the characters’ crises that the pain of others comes through.

This is never more clear than at the very end of the film, where over a black screen Kessler reads one of the letters that Neumann has sent, full of details concerning Nazi atrocities. It is as though Klotz had set himself the task of regarding the pain of others without showing it. He does so by taking a common theme in recent French cinema (the corporate work place of Work Hard, Play Hard, Time Out, Read My Lips, In My Skin etc) and applied it to a sort of ontological conspiracy thriller where the self is always and fundamentally more important than the investigation undergone.


©Tony McKibbin