“Work Hard – Play Hard”
A Tour of the Brave New World of Work

How to get the maximum out of people as manpower.
How to get the maximum out of people as manpower. | Photo (detail): © hupe Film

All that glitters is not gold. In her documentary “Work Hard – Play Hard”, Carmen Losmann takes a look behind the scenes of an ostensibly attractive world of work – a film worth seeing.

If you believe the catchy phrase “work hard – play hard”, people who work hard can look forward to plenty of rewards in the form of fun and recreation. So it is not quite clear why Carmen Losmann chose this particular title for her documentary, since the young director’s theme is less the relationship between work and leisure than ostensibly humane management techniques that aim to get the maximum out of people as manpower. This film, the director’s debut work, is definitely worth seeing. It is intelligently made and has received a number of awards.

Companies in transformation

The team at a Stuttgart architect’s office are anticipating hard work. When faced with the challenging task of designing a corporate building that in no way reminds employees that it is their workplace, the busy architects are at their creative best. They talk of light-flooded, vitalising worlds of experience intended to convey a sense of enjoyment at work and of the new entrepreneurial spirit of employees preparing to set out into a dynamic future.

Director Carmen Losmann (born in 1978) uses this scene right at the beginning of her documentary film Work Hard – Play Hard to establish that the times when an employee’s performance was measured by a time-punch machine are over once and for all. Yet an ideal working environment based on trust and goodwill rather than on meticulously-kept time accounts is a chimera. By gradually revealing the tactics and methods of modern human resource management, Losmann takes her audience on a tour of a brave new world of work at the end of which their reflex will be to ask themselves whether they really want to be part of it.

Aesthetic insights

Losmann’s behind-the-scenes look at German companies is as penetrating as it is unvarnished. On her tour of the canteens and executive suites of German companies, she gathers impressions of a highly-modernised working environment, compressing them with a finely-tuned sense of drama to make a gripping 90-minute documentary. The young director of Work Hard – Play Hard unhurriedly presents images of futurist office buildings and anonymous conference rooms. Their cool aesthetics make viewers feel uneasy in a way they cannot quite pin down.

This is because Losmann is just as wary of using evaluative portrayals as she is of intrusive background music. Instead, sedate pictures of staircases and exterior views with ethereal electro sound in the background give audiences sufficient space to take stock and form an opinion between the individual settings. Aptly-chosen changes of perspective from that of a quiet observer to that of an active interlocutor lead observant viewers to realise almost automatically in one scene after another that state-of-the-art management techniques focus on one thing and one thing only: optimising manpower.

To this end, offices have mutated into non-territorial workplaces where personal objects are just as out of place as having an enjoyable chat in the corridor. Are these Orwellian qualities? Almost. There is no doubt that the images of colleagues in a human resource management firm, which views its staff as human capital and disguises the way it is constantly urging them to improve their performance by calling it cultural change, are unsettling evidence of this.

Subtle build-up of tension

Unimpressed by the inflationary use made of the word “fun” in assessment centres and jungle camps, Carmen Losmann uses proficiently-held interviews to subtly reveal the harsh criticism often underlying corporate consultants’ and human resource officers’ friendly banter. When nothing is to be heard except the quiet crackling of the camera while a young employee waits for the results of his personal development dialogue, the audience cannot help feeling that they would not like to be in his shoes!

Tension is built up almost unnoticeably in Work Hard – Play Hard, and for that very reason, it lingers with the audience. At the beginning, smatterings of alienating managerial jargon (“mega-growth mentality”) are presented in small doses, but towards the end of the documentary, the audience is confronted with a working reality where automotive terms are applied to people almost as a matter of course and employees’ performance is measured using sophisticated hardware. In this context, even monotonous doctrinal statements such as “What I am planning to do soon is …” made by highly-motivated executives doing supposedly enjoyable outdoor training sound like a dark lament on human weakness. A finely-crafted documentary that makes you reflect on why nowadays good is often no longer good enough.