6.5/10
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6 user 4 critic

A Human Condition (1974)

Humain, trop humain (original title)
A documentary with almost no words following the production of Citroen cars at a plant in Northern France and their later sales.
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A documentary with almost no words following the production of Citroen cars at a plant in Northern France and their later sales.

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3 April 1974 (France)  »

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Human, Too Human  »

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The Sum of Its Component Parts?
1 September 2011 | by (Canada) – See all my reviews

Thorkell A. Ottarsson, who posted a review on 13 September 2009, called this film "beautiful, meditative and poetic." It is indeed meditative. With a steady series of "snapshots" depicting the production of automobiles at a Citroën factory, it follows the rhythm of the assembly line, and this suggests a poetic meter.

Beginning with a woman manoeuvring a travelling crane over a vast stockpile of rolled steel sheet, we don't know what is being manufactured until the first recognizable component appears in the frame: the hood of the car is flipped over and inspected by a young woman in a red vest.

We follow the process for the first quarter of the film. The pieces are fitted together, slowly building the automobile. Sometimes more interesting than the procedure is the ingenious jig or fixture that has been created to hold the workpiece or guide parts together. At each stage inspectors feel for correct alignment or smooth finish, peer into corners and consult clipboards. The overall impression is of a huge number of people busily involved in the manufacturing process.

After we see the finished cars being driven onto rail transport, the second quarter of the film shows people checking out the cars at an auto show. Here we see the result is an amazingly complex, highly refined machine— looking like a jewel box under the bright lights. An amazing variety of people pick over, peer at, explore, and comment on the finished product, completely oblivious of the many individual human beings who contributed to its existence.

The second half of the film returns to the assembly line. Now we see it at the level of the individual workers, often seen framed by their own machine or the components around them, so they appear alone, integrated with their machine. The process is mesmerizing. The camera lingers this time on individuals. Some stand at a work station and perform their task with a steady rhythm of repetitious motions. Others move in steady rhythm around components that move slowly, inexorably along the assembly line. We may watch them perform several different tasks as a car body moves along, then pick up their tools and walk back up the line to begin on another car body. No one talks. All focus on their assigned task.

What we see is a tremendously complicated task that has been highly organized into many small tasks each handled by one individual. A scene showing seat upholstery being sewn suggests how many components have come from yet another assembly line that we do not see. Some of the tasks are very simple: one person's role is to place washers on a pair of studs; an exquisitely-sculpted jig allows one woman to bend tubing into an intricate configuration in a few simple motions. Some tasks involve more craftsmanship: spot welding in the right places, filling and smoothing a body seam, hammering and levering until a hatchback door closes perfectly aligned.

We see the manufacturing process in roughly reverse order. The film ends with a freeze frame of the young woman in the red apron inspecting newly-welded hoods. We are left to wonder if mass production reduces the contributions of individuals to such small parts that they are usually forgotten. They become insignificant, and the public at the auto show refer to the car as a product of a corporation. The vehicle has features and changes that "they" have decided on.

We are also left perhaps to wonder if a mass produced article retains a part, albeit a minuscule part, of each individual who has contributed to it, and whether or not the sum total of all that is equivalent to what is in a work completed by a single craftsperson.


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