The titans of 12 major companies talk directly to the camera about power, hierarchy, trade unions, strikes, and self-management. Filmmakers Gerard Mordillat and Nicolas Philibert asked these captains of industry to select their own locations for filming, where the men were allowed to speak in uninterrupted long takes. In effect, the titans hang themselves with their ruthless, cold-blood commentary in sterile environments. After the film was completed, the subjects realized their error and persuaded the French government to prevent His Master's Voice from being shown on television.
Only available in French
I learned about one of the makers of this film, Gérard Mordillat, from his remarkable television series on Arte in the 1990s, Corpus Christi. It was a straightforward telling of the life of Jesus, this mythic character transformed, thanks to contributions from historians and theologians, into a historical figure. Being capable of capturing a subject so distant from us, taking a surgical approach to speculation, surely piqued his interest in capturing another Messianic figure, this one secular: business leaders. No less captivating despite dating back to the 1970s, we watch the bosses fall back and innovate to try and build, in the golden hours of Marxism, political syndicalism and Parliamentary socialism, which are now completely foreign to us as trappings of power. It opens on a deeply unlikely scene in which gathered business leaders double down on their powers of invention to find the right semantic angle to describe their positions. Going through the process of elimination, they disqualify the expressions one by one: “master”, “boss”, “manager”, “business leader”, and even more (“new political animal”, “winners” or “conquerors of the possible”!), they ultimately betray themselves in their attempt at portraiture. It is a spectacular display of Freudian denial: in dealing with everything they claim not to be, they display for the world their most unspeakable aspects, which, moreover, speaks to an irony they are the only ones not to appreciate.
Then, one by one, the bosses fall away. The announcement is made of political power erected in the form of multinationals, the anonymous power of global capitalism legitimizing the authoritarian and undemocratic figure of the CEO, new management practices that make subordinates willing partners in the structure that oppresses them, the neutralization or overwhelming of the social state. These industrial and financial powers herald, in dated language and black-and-white images from another time, the organization of a world that we now know well, the same one that is crushing us.
As the filmmaker’s editing proposes, this discourse was already hegemonic at the time and made its way into people’s homes as an obvious reference. They captured the very earliest moments of this ideology’s development. No longer in need of Marx, bosses speak of themselves in terms of older critiques, depersonalizing themselves in so-called laws of history and rules of management, in the sense that, while they believe themselves to be competent, they also know they are interchangeable. The brutal contrast between the positioning of the bosses and the scenes showing the frenetic pace of assembly line work performed by their workers seems less to reveal untruthfulness on their part, rather a situation of ignorance.
As sociologists like Luc Boltanski¹ stated in that era, bosses set objectives and directives without necessarily knowing how the work on which their deliverables depend is organized. David Greaber would corroborate that later². Paradoxically, we find ourselves missing that era when leaders of the private sector proved themselves to be so openly conscious of their historical and social position—constrained by Marxists—and so long-winded. (Today, only the successive CEOs of Total, in France, who maintain this tradition.) In this exceptional documentary, it’s not only the discourse that is weighty, but the apparatus in which its subjects choose to be filmed, just as the trappings of power that they harbour and their telling body language, absent the horde of then-non-existent “communicators” to advise them.
¹ Luc Boltanski, Les cadres. La formation d’un groupe social, Paris, les Éditions de Minuit, coll. « Le sens commun », 1982.
² David Graeber, Bureaucratie. L’utopie des règles, Paris, Actes Sud, coll. « Babelio », 2015.
Nicolas Philibert was born in 1951 in Nancy, France. After studying philosophy, he turned to film and became an assistant director, notably for René Allio and Alain Tanner. From 1985 to 1987, Nicolas Philibert shot various mountaineering and sports adventure films for television, then started directing documentary features that would all obtain a theatrical release. In 2001, he directed To Be and To Have. The film was a huge success in France and around forty other countries. Over the past fifteen years, more than 120 tributes and and retrospectives of his films have been organized all around the world.
Gérard Mordillat was born in 1949 in Paris, in a working-class family from a proletarian neighbourhood. After having directed the literature pages of Libération, he published his first novel, which tells his childhood, in Vive la sociale!. Since then, he has never ceased to be interested in social issues, through novels, essays, films or documentaries. He also addresses religious matters.
For the television, he has directed television films, sometimes based on his own books, like the social saga Les vivants et les morts. He has also made documentary series such as Corpus Christi and L'origine du christianisme in collaboration with Jérôme Prieur. In 2012, he directed Le grand retournement based on Frédéric Lordon's play about the financial crisis. He recently published the collection of poems Le Linceul du vieux monde and prefaced a new edition of Karl Marx's Capital.