Dec 19, 2009
Many Holocaust movies are envisioned as memorials: through these films we are supposed to remember the events of that time. But cinema space has a way of overpowering the space of memory and, despite their intentions, Holocaust films often obstruct remembrance by supplanting after-images of the Shoah as stand-ins for the crime itself. In a broader sense this is also true of people: generations without first-hand knowledge of that time always understand the Shoah through the constant mediation of other sources such as books, photographs, films and even survivor testimony. Despite this ever-present mediation, most Holocaust films are produced as if they issue from the events themselves, exploding out of that time, untouched by anything except the truth.
One recent film, La Question Humaine (2007), directed by Nicolas Klotz, avoids this delusion by positioning itself within the bounds of the “received history” of the Shoah. The film examines how we are supposed to understand the horrors of that time when we are generations removed from the events themselves.
An hour and fifteen minutes into La Question Humaine, the lead character, Simon Kessler, sits alone in the dark, disheveled, repeating single words from a letter. Kessler, a corporate psychologist who works in human resources at SC Farb, a transnational petrochemical company, has been tasked by his superior, Karl Rose, with covertly evaluating the mental state of the CEO, Mathias Jüst, whose actions have become increasingly erratic.
The movie, based on a novel of the same name, opens soon after a round of mass layoffs, which were lead principally by Kessler who starts his investigation by talking with Jüst’s secretary and the former members of a company string quartet, in which Jüst played. Kessler comes off as a Kafkaesque character except that unlike the protagonists of Kafka’s stories, he is wholly ingrained in the machinery of overwhelming power: he is a subaltern from deep within the castle.
Jüst learns that Kessler has been sent to investigate him and claims it is because he has sensitive information about Karl Rose’s connections (past and present) with far-right nationalist and paramilitary groups in Germany. Soon after, the CEO is revealed to have links to the Third Reich: during the occupation of Poland, his father, Theodor, collaborated with the SS in deporting Jews to death camps and even the massacre of women and children in Eastern Poland.
And so we find Kessler, late at night, sounding out German words from a technical report written by Jüst: “Concern, selection, reintegration, restructuring plan, relocation, concern, selection…” The shot here is unique: Kessler sits left of a black field that cuts the frame in two, as if leaving an empty space for another character. The whole scene is like one half of a dialogue. These words, detached from the sentences that bore them, hang in the air, waiting for someone to put them in context, to speak them in full.
Jüst’s erratic behavior accelerates and he attempts to commit suicide by inhaling car exhaust fumes. Kessler visits him in a mental hospital where Jüst passes him two anonymously-sent letters. The first is a real letter written by Willy Jüst, in 1942 to Oberstrumbanfürher Walter Rauff. In it he describes the infamous gas vans with euphemistic precision, “Since December 1941, ninety-seven thousand have been processed, using three vans, without any defects showing up in the vehicles…Experience shows, however, that when the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door. The reason for this is that when it becomes dark inside the load rushes toward what little light remains. This hampers the locking of the door.”
This and the subsequent letters that Kessler receives lead him to Arie Neuman, the fourth member of the quartet who had been one of the many layoffs organized by Kessler himself.
Kessler confronts Neuman about his reasons for sending these disturbing and inflammatory letters only to be cowed by a stunning monologue that finally completes the scene from 45 minutes earlier. Narratively and visually this scene fills in that empty, black space.
The euphemisms for murder are gradually stripped of their power. Slowly, mournfully, Neuman remembers watching his father and other men drive gas vans across his hometown. Through his remembrance we can understand his sorrow, which is not just for the victims, but also for the perpetrators – these drivers, scientists, escorting officers, the Obersturmbannführer. These people have all but relinquished their connection to humanity by obscuring and effacing their acts in the cold, technical language. As Neuman reminds us, the effect and power of this language isn’t secured from on high – the propaganda and sloganeering of the Third Reich goes beyond speeches and posters. It exists corporally, “it seeps into the masses’ flesh and blood.” Although this corruption is neither instantaneous nor complete, it finds its power in transforming inhumane actions into the actions of mere production.
This is one of the more complex elements of the film and it has resulted in confusion, anger and serious vitriol from some viewers. One viewer wrote: “Only a pretentious left wing French pseudo-intellectual neo-feminist [sic] could conflate the behaviour of men in suits with that of men in Nazi uniforms.” Another wrote: “if they want to say that a Vice President is an SS officer, we have to call that out as disinformation or, rather, intellectual fraud.” One positive reviewer wrote: “The question behind Nicolas Klotz’s wordy, unwieldy, stylish and absorbing feature … is simply this: Is your boss a fascist?” This is not the question behind the film.
Elizabeth Perceval, the screenwriter, and Nicolas Klotz responded to this confusion in an interview in Le Monde. In reply to a question about the parallel between economic liberalism and the Nazi system she said:
The goal was not to establish a parallel. This would be reductionist, idiotic – it would yield nothing about the world of the free market, nor the Shoah. Rather, it’s an attempt…to make visible that which made [Auschwitz] possible and what it still perpetuates today.
The argument is not that people working in multinational companies are fascists or that layoffs are somehow equivalent to death camps. Rather, the film – the narrative itself – “make visible” a system of production which that operates according to a technocratic and dehumanizing process that disregards the humanity of the people it effects. This process, though clearly distinct from the destruction of European Jews, shares a common root with the Shoah. Some historians go further and argue that the things that made the Shoah such a singular event are also what normalized it: bureaucracy, technocratic obedience, and rationality. This is a delicate argument that draws the film into discussions about the discursive legacy of the Shoah: perhaps the only possible response is silence: the events themselves are so overwhelming that they are unspeakable. On the other hand maybe we have to lay bare this history as a means to prevent other mass crimes from occurring. Kessler turns over analogous arguments throughout the film and so the question La Question Humaine presents is not “is your boss a fascist?” – but have we really confronted the forces and tendencies that made the Holocaust possible?
A key aspect of the film that helps us observe and make sense of all this, is music. Indeed, the music of La Question Humaine is much more than a supplementary element: it serves to further both the plot and our understanding of the corporation and its employees. One track in particular exemplifies this; we witness Jüst’s total breakdown as he listens to a selection from the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet.
This composer and this work in particular were of major interest to Nicolas Klotz and in an interview from 2008 he says:
La Question Humaine is a musical film…it is Schubert, which is supreme elegy and absolute contemplation. This music is about the memory of classical music and how it is passed down by the fathers, who transmit two things: the violence of murder and classical culture. Distant history is in this music but at the same time, it is totally contemporary in its’ precision and romanticism.
This work was written at the end of Schubert’s life and is laden with the heavy pathos of a confrontation with death and that pathos is evident onscreen. Despite his own protestations, Jüst recognizes the connection of his father’s crimes in Poland to his own. To be clear: Jüst is no Nazi, but here, in the flat light of his study, he understands how his life has benefited from that regime and, more importantly, he admits to himself his own failure to confront those crimes and what gave rise to them. His company, his livelihood, depends on a certain dehumanization and technocratic obedience to production over and above the people it effects. The hideous, euphemistic and obscurantist writing that marks the letter to Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff and the technical reports of SC Farb, are just the symptoms, the outward expression of this deeper failure, this deeper corruption.
But recognition and understanding are not the same as redemption and the conclusion of the film is ambiguous at best. There is no crude triumph of life over death or good over evil and the implication is that even if some of the characters reflect on their actions – little else has really changed. The film ends in black, in mourning, but also in condemnation. Klotz isn’t interested in trying corporations for Nazi crimes, but in trying them for the crimes that are purely their own.
So how do we situate this film? It is a film about business – a film that surely would have garnered more attention had it been released in September 2008, rather than September 2007, when layoffs were still dismissed as part of a business cycle. In some sense the film could be termed a corporate thriller within the ranks of The Insider (1999) or Michael Clayton (2008). It is, as we said at the outset, a Holocaust film – one without starved prisoners and gas chambers but nevertheless recalling, visually and narratively, those historical events. But insofar as it is a Holocaust film, it is one of the most self-aware because it acknowledges literary and scholarly traditions of representing this event: it is less a movie about the Holocaust than it is a movie about how we remember the Holocaust.
Again, music helps make this clear: musical traditions, so evident in the film, are also evident in the history of the Shoah. Novelists, poets and rock stars have observed the changing functions and references of music during and after Holocaust. Even in Auschwitz music was played and many camps had orchestras that were forced to perform for a variety of occasions and events including, “marches, tortures, grave digging and executions…Even if death camp music sometimes ‘humanized’ the German staff or kept up prisoners’ spirits…that world’s negation of values still rendered music and the idea of music grotesque.” (28-33: Felstiner 1995) As we are reminded in La Question Humaine, music was complicit crimes of that period: the crimes themselves are latent in the music of Schubert through to Ian Curtis. From string quartets to raves. It is infrequent that a film is so aware of its’ historical precedents and even rarer when that film expresses that awareness through music. For Klotz, music becomes an important axis that connects perpetrator to victim – both in the past and present. Whether we recognize it, or not, each performance is bridged with history and laden with references and meaning. Reflecting on the subtleties of these connections drives La Question Humaine and leads us into the fragmentary and confusing process of investigating the horrors, sorrow and logic of the past through the increasingly confusing and fragmentary present.