“Mr. Klein,” a Political Mystery of Mistaken Identity in Occupied Paris
The restoration and revival of Joseph Losey’s 1976 film “Mr. Klein,” screening at Film Forum today through September 19th, makes readily available a work that, like most masterworks, has a retrospective air of destiny but resulted from a series of useful accidents. Set in Paris in early 1942, during the German Occupation, it’s the story of a Parisian Catholic man named Robert Klein (Alain Delon) whose identity becomes confused with that of a Jewish man with the same name—and who, as a result, faces the same persecutions that Jews faced in France at the time.
Losey wasn’t the first choice to direct it; the project was meant for Costa-Gavras, a filmmaker of overt left-wing sympathies and a rather simplistic, albeit stirring, realistic manner, but he turned it down. Instead, Losey—also a leftist, but an aesthete of a different stripe—got the job. The resulting film is both a work of history, unstinting in its concrete depiction of political hatred and fear, and a portrait of the metaphysics of tyranny—a classic of doppelgänger paranoia that gathers the theme on a single string and pulls it into modernity.
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There were many great directors working in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, but Losey was the great filmmaker of that era, whose movies of the late nineteen-forties and early fifties embodied the industry’s and the country’s political crisis, and did so in theme, in mood, and in style—and who then was forced, because of anti-Communist persecution, into exile. His first feature, “The Boy with Green Hair,” fused the pathology of racism with the terror of nuclear destruction; his film noir “The Prowler” was a bilious drama of surveillance, consumerism, predatory sexuality, and feral survivalism; his 1951 remake, on the streets of Los Angeles, of Fritz Lang’s “M” turned city life into a menacing web of observation and pursuit. He devised both a hectic manner of performance and a visual art to match: Losey’s screens are scarified and striated, a tangle of turbulent textures in which the characters are seemingly inescapably caught.
Losey went into exile in Great Britain in 1953 and continued his career (at first, with difficulty, and pseudonymously), making such Cold War masterworks as “Time Without Pity” (a story of a father and a son pitted against each other by a dubious arrest) and “These Are the Damned,” a.k.a. “The Damned” (a vision of post-apocalypse now). His romantic drama “Eva,” from 1962, starring Jeanne Moreau, renders intimate desperation as the distilled essence of modernity. Soon thereafter, he changed registers drastically, with “Modesty Blaise,” a hectic and giddily inventive espionage caper that’s adapted from a comic-strip series. He moved to France in the early seventies (fleeing British taxes) and made the chilly historical drama “The Assassination of Trotsky,” a French-Italian co-production with Richard Burton as the Bolshevik in exile and Delon as his designated killer, which hinted at the overarching tone of “Mr. Klein”—its sense of doom—if not its comprehensive imagination or metaphorical reach.
“Mr. Klein” starts with an act of genteel depravity that is all the more shocking for being historically true: a woman is being examined by doctors who are applying pseudoscientific methods (examining her gums and jaw, measuring her nostrils with a specially devised ruler, observing her naked body and her gait) to determine, in an official report, whether she is Jewish. The lone woman’s stifled indignation rises quickly to a collective silent uproar: the doctor’s waiting room turns out to be teeming with patients awaiting similar treatment. Along with the scene’s monstrous substance, Losey draws out its aftermath with an agonizing attentiveness to the specificity of time. The woman’s emergence from the examining room into the outer area, her reunion with her husband, who has undergone a similar examination, their exit past the distracted gaze of a pair of police officers, their passage through a long windowed corridor—silently, seeking a moment of privacy amid the relentless virtual surveillance of the state that is putting them through this intrusive sham and obscene ordeal—draw out the terrifying suspense of legalistic nonsense to an inconclusive void, setting the tone for the drama of Klein that follows.
As Anthony Lane mentioned in his review of “Mr. Klein,” Losey took on the project when another one—an adaptation of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”—fell through. Proust, who was Jewish, would have been seventy in the course of the events in “Mr. Klein,” and at the moment that Losey switched gears to the latter project, the title of Proust’s magnum opus, “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu”—“In Search of Lost Time”—was even more fitting for the Second World War and the thirty years of oblivion into which its horrors had sunk. The collaboration of French officials with the German occupiers was officially presented as a sort of aberration of individuals rather than a systemic corruption of French government and society. (In 1955, when Alain Resnais made the short documentary “Night and Fog”—about the struggle to recover memories of the Holocaust from the ten years of ordinary life and routine oblivion that, as he saw it, followed the end of the war—he was forced by French censors to remove an image of a French gendarme overseeing deportations.) At the time “Mr. Klein” was released, the ice was beginning to break, owing in significant measure to another film, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a documentary by Marcel Ophüls, released in France in 1971, that revealed the extent of French collaboration with, even sympathy with, the occupiers’ anti-Semitic depredations.
As a film of wartime memory brought to life, of French history as intimate experience and vice versa, “Mr. Klein” did what a Losey version of Proust would likely not have done—it reckoned with experiences and actions that, far from being remembered, were actively denied, and it served as a sort of Proustian “Remembrance of Things Suppressed.” Klein is an art dealer living in the tiny Seventh Arrondissement, who doesn’t shrink from buying Old Master paintings from Jews in need of gold to flee the country. His machinations are heard before they’re seen, from the point of view of his lover, Jeanine (Juliet Berto), who overhears just such a perverse purchase from the sleek calm of her boudoir. Frightened by the appearance on his doorstep of an official Jewish newspaper, he heads to the newspaper office and then to the police station to clear up the mystery and instead learns that there’s a second Robert Klein, who lives at a different address—one that was scratched out on the journal’s mailing label and replaced with the first Klein’s own.
What results is a kind of detective story in which Klein’s search for the other Klein quickly becomes an existential search for himself. Meanwhile, uncanny traces erode his sense of who he himself may be. The police show up bearing his calling card, which he’d just given to a Jewish man from whom he’d bought a painting. He goes to the grubby apartment of the other Klein—let’s call him Klein II, as the filmmaker does in “Conversations with Losey,” a remarkable series of interviews conducted by Michel Ciment—and is physically mistaken for him, not for the last time. Seeking documents from his father in Strasbourg that would prove his family background, Klein instead hears some incidental remarks that cast doubt on the received certainty of the family lineage, and the longer it takes for some of the documents to turn up, the wider and darker the abyss of elusive selfhood grows.
Klein knows well the kinds of trouble that he faces when he’s mistaken for a Jew. It was, to say the least, a dangerous identity to bear in France at the time. France’s government, under the dictatorial power of Marshal Philippe Pétain, was expected by the Nazi occupiers to place restrictions on the country’s Jews—but Vichy France’s government went far beyond the occupiers’ demands in its persecution of Jews in its territory. The dire story was documented in detail in the groundbreaking 1981 book “Vichy France and the Jews,” by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, the second edition of which will be published on September 17th, with new information from belatedly opened French-government files. By 1942, Jews in France were excluded from the civil service and from many professions, including teaching and media, and from many universities (and were subject to quotas in others). Jews in France were subject to summary arrest; businesses owned by Jews were subject to confiscation, as was the personal property of Jews. Marrus and Paxton write that the regime sought nothing less than “to complete the exclusion of Jews from French public life.” Then, in 1942, Jews had to wear yellow stars on their outer garments, to mark them conspicuously; mass deportations of Jews in France began, too, organized not by the German army or the Gestapo but by French police officers and French officials.
The fragile fiction of Klein’s identity is matched by the fragile illusions of his social whirl. He practices intimate deceptions. He deceives Jeanine about money; his former lover, Nicole (Francine Bergé), the wife of his lawyer, Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), about love; a concierge (Suzanne Flon) about his effort to enter Klein II’s apartment; and Klein II’s lover, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), a Jewish woman in a rural château, about his pursuit of his double. (Meanwhile, these characters pull off suave deceptions of their own.) Getting hold of a photograph from Klein II’s apartment, Klein rambles through the city, backstage at a cabaret and to the outskirts of town at a munitions factory, in pursuit of another woman in Klein II’s life. A piece of string that turns out to be a bit of detonator cord tips Klein off to the Klein II’s involvement with the French Resistance—a recognition that, for our protagonist, sets his drama on a grander historical stage. Meanwhile, the gloss of society continues unabated but with a weird air of grotesque distortion: diners at a celebrated café stuff their faces, alongside festive German officers, with a frantic zeal at a moment when the country at large endures food shortages. A night-club act, with its elaborate stagecraft, turns out to be a work of anti-Semitic propaganda. An ordinary café bears a sign banning Jews from its premises.
The illusions that Klein confronts in the course of the film are the illusions of his divided and compartmentalized consciousness—the self-deceptions of individuals pretending that there’s anything like normalcy while the depredations of surveillance, arrest, and deportation occur. There’s a notable moment when specially labelled buses, filled with deportees, many wearing the yellow star, pass by an outdoor produce market filled with shoppers going about their business. Losey draws out the time of such scenes. The simple passage of time—under threat, in doubt, and in silence—creates an unbearable dramatic suspense, and Losey catches it in motion, in ordinary actions that seethe with menace and doom. He sets the camera roving and wandering through corridors and streets, shifts points of view to catch multiple simultaneous levels of suspicion and surveillance, fills lavish interiors with geometrical jumbles and clashes of color and shape that evoke a relentless screech of distraction and diversion, and even finds, in the incongruous dense leafiness of a rounded tree in a city street in the dead of winter, a texture of hypnotic distraction. The very forms of the city’s sights, as in the filigreed glasswork in the Grand Palais, requisitioned for police actions—a glorious structure built in the heart of Paris at the exact time that the anti-Semitic fury of the Dreyfus affair was raging—evoke the snares and nets, the cagy concealments, that define the modern history of French public and political life.
The spectacle of “Mr. Klein” is that of the absurd rendered ordinary, of the senseless depicted as normal. Its drama of willful obliviousness is elevated, through Losey’s aesthetic, into a cinematic ontology. There’s an exchange, in Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man,” in which he asks a concentration-camp guard “Why?” The answer is, “Hier ist kein Warum”—“Here there is no why.” There is certainly a “how,” though, and Losey doesn’t stint on it, showing the mighty mechanism of documentation, of police files, on which the bureaucratic machinery of murder depends, and also the organized police activities, the meetings, the maps, the banal physical labor of signage and partitions, the dispatch of unmarked cars, the coördinated timing of raids, the relentless interrogations, and, ultimately, the bare brutal use of force. At the time of the movie’s release, France was still decades away from admitting its responsibility for its anti-Semitic persecutions and murders during the war. The illusions that Losey revealed weren’t just those to which Klein was initiated but those of France at large, a country that, at that very moment, was a mere simulacrum of itself. No less than Losey’s McCarthy-era movies and Cold War productions, “Mr. Klein” is a political movie in the present tense.