"Humain, Trop Humain" - Louis Malle (1974)

Louis Malle’s feature-length documentary, Humain, Trop Humain (1974), was produced in between the production of two of his more famous fiction films, Lacombe Lucien (1971) and Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au Coeur, 1974). All three films suggest a prevailing uneasy relationship between his pivotal characters and the larger sociocultural values of society. That relationship is not one of conflict and rebellion, but more of an “impedance mismatch” between his characters under focus and the societies in which they live. But this quasi-motif, such as it is, lies far below the surface of Humain, Trop Humain, which ostensibly depicts in considerable, almost obsessive, detail the manual operations of workers at a French auto assembly plant.

The shooting of the film was conducted at a Citroën automobile assembly plant in Rennes (where among the various models worked on was the notorious Deux Chevaux – “2CV”) and at a large Paris auto show, where showcase Citroëns are among the vehicles on display to the general public. The film’s structure comprises three principal sections, although there are no boundaries or clear-cut transitions between them.
  • The 1st section presents a schematic sequence of the various fabrication processes and operations that are used to convert what starts out initially as rolled sheet metal into a finished automobile.
  • The 2nd section shows completed automobiles on display at the Paris auto show.
  • The 3rd section returns to the Rennes auto plant and focusses on some of the laborious manual operations of the assembly-line workers.
Throughout the film there is no narrative voiceover and very little recorded dialogue – no explanations concerning what is happening onscreen are provided. The emphasis is not on the product, but on the people performing the work.

1. The Auto Assembly Process (17 minutes). The opening shots show a woman hoist operator maneuvering rolled sheet metal being positioned so that it can be fed into a mechanical sheet cutter. Metal sheets are then stamped and fed to an assembly line, where other workers can perform more detailed operations on them. Later processes show skeletal auto frames being smoothed over by men with rotary grinders, completed auto frames being spray painted, women arranging the electrical wiring that will go in the vehicles, and men fitting various mechanical components, such as gear-shit levers, into the now almost-complete auto frames. Finally, we see fully completed cars being driven out of the factory and into a lot for shipping.

2. The Auto Show (17 minutes). Without warning the context abruptly switches to the Paris auto show, where large crowds swarm over the vehicles on display and hear pitches from salesmen describing the latest features on offer. (This is the only section of the film where human voices are discernable – in sections 1 and 3, the noises of the factory and the machines drown out whatever words might be spoken.) What is striking about this auto-show section is the contrast between the complexity of the construction work in the first section and the simpleminded naivete of the potential customers at the auto show. The consumers frown with self-satisfaction as they ask what they seem to think are challenging questions about the cars; but their questions are trivial and inconsequential. While we have just seen evidence that considerable engineering work must go into the design and construction of the automobiles, the customers at the show merely want to know why some knob for adjusting the front seat wasn’t moved a few centimetres to the left. And most of all, of course, the customers are concerned with the maximum speed of the automobiles – one young man complains dismissively that a car advertised as able to go 160 kph, can only do 155 kph. But other than general consumer cluelessness, the comments from the customers are not particularly revealing, and there doesn’t seem to be any progression or development in this section. It is merely a string of fragmentary snippets of encounters between customers and salesmen. So after more than a quarter hour of this kind of stuff, the viewer is likely to be thankful to move on.

3. Monotonous.Work (39 minutes). The scene now shifts back to the factory at Rennes, and from here on, as in the first section, there is no discernible dialogue to be heard in the film. In this part of the film, the focus is on the repetitive manual labor of the workers. There is something of a progression here: as we move to different handwork operations, the skill and dexterity required of the workers is reduced at each stage. Gradually we see a movement towards people being little more than simple adjuncts to machines. First we see repetitive operations performed mostly by male workers, and there is some skill involved. Then we move to some operations performed by female workers which require a certain minimal amount of dexterity. Finally we see women performing mind-numbingly boring and repetitive tasks, such as simply turning over a piece of metal as it moves by them on the assembly line.  The repetitive work includes
  • Women doing manual work on auto seats.
  • Men doing spray painting.
  • Men working separately with hammers, blow torches, and power drills
  • A single man who repetitively goes through a sequence of work with a metal file, then with a blow torch, and then using a power drill.
  • Women using their hands to insert small pieces onto metal rigs moving by on the assembly line.
  • A woman simply pushing items into a stamper.
  • A woman simply turning individual items over as they move by on the line.
After watching this repetitive work at such length, one gets the feeling for the purely mechanical nature of this work. There is little intelligence required, only simple actions that are performed reliably. Although there is no suggestion that the workers are mistreated, there is the implicit suggestion that the workers are only useful as machine parts. Nevertheless the workers shown are remarkably assiduous and focussed on their work. I wondered while watching just how many of today’s youth would be even capable of this degree of diligence. It is no wonder that manufacturers look for the cheapest labor markets in the world, where industrious workers may be not only cheaper but more capable of doing this kind of factory work (and, indeed, Citroën was on a serious downward slope with respect to its competition at the time of this film).

Of course though the operations are presented from a seemingly objective point of view, one wonders just how natural the filming was. After all, the workers are all very presentable and well groomed by American standards. With the number of closeups of auto interiors in the film, one assumes that the cameramen were quite visible and was likely a psychological intrusion on the behavior of the workers. Was this somewhat staged, or is it just that the French, in general, have their act more together than Americans? This is not a minor issue, because it reflects on the overall meaning of the film. To me, the endlessly repetitive work shown in the film, even as presented in the best possible circumstances and with the best possible workers, is not human – it is inhuman, hence the irony of the film’s title. By contrast, New York Times critic Vincent Canby’s review argued that the film demonstrates the notion that small, repetitious tasks are beneficial – the familiar duties required by the simple tasks are comforting, because they create order in what otherwise would be a chaotic universe! Nope, I don’t think Malle would subscribe to this thesis, and I don’t think Friedrich Nietzsche, whose aphoristic philosophical work of 1879 provided the words for Malle’s title, would agree either. Nietzsche and Malle both see the potential for the human enterprise as far grander than is envisioned by modernism, metaphysics, and conventional religions: man’s heroic role is more than a search for simple jobs to do. But if you have a chance to see Humain, Trop Humain, you can judge for yourself.
★★★

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