The Human Factor

The Human Factor


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Mixing a treasure trove of archive footage with an epistolary romance, The Human Factor is a defiantly odd and surprisingly moving portrait of the birth of the machine era. Not, to be clear, the industrial age, but the outgrowth of Fordism into Taylorism, that brief window that spawned half a hundred -topias - the soaring pillars and art deco dreams of the Gernsback continuum, that boot stamping on a human face forever. "Efficiency should be the measure of the whole society".

So, too, with the story. A husband and wife write to each other, Ernest and Marjorie, each discovering the benefits of time and motion. As their letters are read, reams of machinery, mechanisms, shop floors and factories, new suburbs and kitchen triangles, lockstep compasses, cubic headsets, button-pushing devices, dollshouses and model communities, aeroplanes and automobiles, all soar and slide and rotate underneath their words.

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There's mention of Lenin, "men will get used to surveillance as they got used to the machine", neighbourhood politics, children playing with die-cast versions of Douglas Campbell's coach-built record-breaking Bluebirds. As Ernest discovers more of Taylorism, his concerns about "better[ing] the worker's condition", the revelation that "dieseases bear a heavy cost on output", the discovery that men who now manufacture "four to five times more have almost doubled their wage" all start to mount. Meanwhile, Marjorie is fast becoming vice president of a neighborhood efficiency organisation, their children are becoming enamoured with knowing how long things take and how to shorten it - an experiment with two toothbrushes is alluded to.

In this small and human drama there are the shadows of the idealism and tyranny of the assembly-line. A tricycle on a sun-washed New Mexico street, the era just before aluminium sidings and the struggle against fascism, before the Cold War - the Soviets come to visit, looking to improve the lot of their workers. As Ernest and Marjorie share their concerns, the footage from the Prelinger Archive shoots by - it's amazing, sometimes veering from tiny components to massive industrial artifacts, full of startling juxtapositions. Vincent Bordelais' sound and Adrien Cogney's music create a number of atmospheres, Todd Sells and Kate Moran provide the voices of our couple, but it's Thibault Le Texier's script and his selection of footage that really make this film.

If you've ever been caught by insomnia with access to the upper channels of freeview or subscription television you'll likely be acquainted with How It's Made or How Stuff Works or Megafactories or shows of that ilk, and in places this is like a compiliation thereof. Yet over (or perhaps underneath) the precision machining and rotating cams and conveyor belts and the reciprocating so ons and the tungsten-carbide so forths there are human beings. Perhaps, like the Aeroflot joke, forced into the mould of the New Soviet Man, and not without discomfort, but The Human Factor manages to balance the optimism and worries of the age with a certain ironic efficiency.

Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2012
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Correspondence intermingled with manual notes explores themes of work, productivity and integrity.

Director: Thibault Le Texier

Starring: Todd Sells, Kate Moran

Year: 2011

Runtime: 27 minutes

Country: France


EIFF 2012

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