French director Nicolas Klotz and screenwriter Elisabeth Perceval's adaptation of Francois Emmanuel's philosophical novel La Question Humaine is a chilling corporate thriller with an intriguing mystery on the surface and a deeply troubling idea at its dark core.
After faithfully serving seven years as in-house psychologist at the Parisian subsidiary of the German-based multinational corporation SC Farb, Simon Kessler (Mathieu Almaric) is called into the office of the company's German deputy manager Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and given a strange assignment. Serious questions, Rose explains, have been raised about the mental health of the French subsidiary's increasingly erratic, German-born CEO Mathias Just (an extraordinary Michael Lonsdale). Rose wants Simon to use the skills he ordinarily brings to new employee screenings and "selections" -- the same skills he also used to help management coldly reduce and "relocate" its workforce by more than half during a recent restructuring -- to assess Just's mental state. Rose has arranged for Simon to meet with Just's dedicated assistant (Valerie Dreville) and, eventually, Simon meets the man himself on the pretext of forming a company orchestra not unlike the quartet in which Just played in several years earlier. Simon even meets Just's wife, Lucy (Edit Scob), and what he sees disturbs him. While Just is obviously depressed and deeply paranoid, he's well aware that he's the target of an investigation and has even achieved a kind of moral clarity that enables him to see the ugly human cost of the restructuring -- the "human factor" he calls it. He also drops a bombshell about Rose and soon Simon isn't exactly sure who to trust. But as the truths grow cloudier, the increasingly anguished psychologist-turned-investigator also gains a certain lucidity: He begins to understand his role as a cog in a corporate machine that routinely eats its own, and that Just is harboring a terrible secret that reaches back across decades to a past that's not quite dead and buried.
That secret cuts to the very heart of what Klotz, Percival and Emmanuel have to say about the evils of corporate culture and to reveal it would undermine the way this coolly intense film unfolds. Suffice to say the similarity between "SC Farb" and the real-life German company IG Farben -- which used slave labor to manufacture Zyklon-B for the Nazis -- isn't coincidental, and those disturbing long takes of smokestacks are intended to evoke concentration camp crematoria. Klotz, Percival and Emmanuel proceed from the notion that we must remain vigilant against the dehumanizing effects of modernity, early signs of which can be found in the emptying of our language of human presence, or risk genocide. Perhaps there are similarities between the dehumanizing, euphemism-filled language of the Final Solution and the blandly disingenuous corporate-speak that enables a company to fire hundreds of its "faulty individuals," but relativizing the Holocaust is dangerous. Hitler's genocide wasn't driven by some abstract, ahistorical current but by identifiable, historically specific factors. There's an important warning at the core of the film, but it's reached via a kind of thinking that only further mystifies the Holocaust and leads people like Professor Ward Churchill to see no difference between Adolf Eichmann and the middle-management capitalists who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. leave a comment --Ken Fox