The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - MR. KLEIN | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - MR. KLEIN

mr klein review
An art dealer profitting from the flight of Jews from wartime Paris finds himself mistaken for a Jewish man.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joseph Losey

Starring: Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, Francine Bergé, Juliet Berto, Jean Bouise, Suzanne Flon, Massimo Girotti, Michael Lonsdale

mr klein bluray

Isn't it awkward when you love the culture of a race but despise the members of that race? For White Americans in the early 20th century, the arrival of the phonograph was a gift from God. Now they could listen to Black music without having to invite Black musicians into their homes. In Vichy France of the early 1940s, the Catholic aristocracy were quite taken with Jewish art. Problem was, they despised Jews. Luckily for them, when France's Jews cottoned on to their impending fate, they began to sell off their artworks for a pittance before fleeing the country. The French middle and upper classes could now possess enviable works of Jewish art while living in a nation largely free of a Jewish presence. What a bargain!

Of all the movies made about the Holocaust, Joseph Losey's 1976 French production Mr. Klein is arguably the most caustic. We never see any images of the death camps, and there isn't a swastika to be seen in a single frame of the movie. Instead Mr. Klein is set in the weeks leading up to the implementation of the final solution, when France's Jews are living in fear, well aware of what lies ahead, while the nation's gentiles are keeping their heads down and ignoring the bureaucracy being put in place for a future pogrom at best, profiting from Jewish suffering at worst.

mr klein review

Robert Klein (Alain Delon) falls into the latter camp. An art dealer, he's making hay while the clouds descend, paying Jews a pittance for the artworks they need to flog before they escape the country. He has a well rehearsed spiel about how he feels guilty buying art under such circumstances, but he clearly doesn't mean a word of it.

One day Klein receives a copy of 'Jewish Information', a newspaper for Paris's Jewish community, delivered to his apartment. Surely there must be some mistake? Despite his surname, Robert Klein is a good Catholic. But the paper is indeed addressed to a Robert Klein at his very own address.

Worried that what seems like an innocent mistake might lead to him being branded a Jew, Klein begins an investigation and learns that there is another man by the name of Robert Klein living in Paris. The further down the rabbit hole he descends in trying to find his namesake, the more Klein incriminates himself with the investigating authorities. Overcome by paranoia, Klein begins to wonder if maybe he has Semitic roots himself.

The French have long been reluctant to depict the horrors of Vichy France on screen, but American director Losey and his Italian screenwriter Franco Solinas have no such qualms. Movies set in occupied Paris usually depict a city under the Nazi jackboot, with swastikas flying from every building and tanks rolling through the streets. Such imagery is notably absent from Losey's film, which emphasises the point that French Jews weren't so much victims of the occupying Germans as of their French neighbours. Erasing Nazi iconography gives Mr. Klein a timeless "it could happen here" feel.

mr klein review

Losey constructs two scenes that are positively anger-inducing in their matter of fact detailing of how Jews were treated. The film opens with a harrowing scene in which a naked elderly woman of vaguely "non-European" appearance is prodded and measured by a doctor performing a form of phrenology to determine if she is a member of the Semitic tribe. The scene ends with a cruel punchline when the "patient" puts her clothes back on and asks the doctor how much she owes him. Another scene sees Klein visit a cabaret where a performer dressed like a grotesque caricature of a Jew performs a routine that draws laughs from the crowd with his depiction of crude stereotypes. Like the tennis match in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, there's one figure in the crowd who remains still. Klein's girlfriend, Jeanine (Juliet Berto), is the only one repulsed by the onstage antics. As those around her guffaw, she looks around and realises how out of place she is (might she herself be Jewish?). Up to that point Jeanine has been portrayed as a bimbo, a ditz, but in that moment we realise she is the only character in the movie with a moral compass.

Losey finds a wonderful way of emphasising Klein's narcissism through his clever blocking of scenes. While practically every scene in the movie revolves around the eponymous protagonist, Losey's camera often wanders away from Klein to focus on those around him, often women who are madly in love with the cad and whose hearts are quietly shattering in the background. In this way, Losey uses his mobile camera in similar fashion to how Altman uses sound to shift the focus in a scene from the person we think the scene is about to those in the background. It leads to an ultimate punchline in which Klein is so consumed with his quest that he doesn't notice a certain figure standing behind him.

Like Losey's most celebrated film, 1963's The Servant, Mr. Klein deals with shifting personas. As the movie reaches its conclusion we're unsure whether the other Klein really exists or if he's some Golem conjured to torment this man who has exploited his Jewish neighbours. There's a heavy dose of Kafka in Klein's dealings with bureaucracy, and even North by North West is a touchstone.

mr klein review

Just as Losey seems to draw inspiration from various sources, so too has Mr. Klein seemingly inspired subsequent filmmakers. Michael Haneke's 2005 thriller Hidden sees Daniel Auteil play a man similarly tormented by an unknown source, and that film highlights another racist chapter in 20th century French history, the 1961 Seine River massacre. Haneke's movie also draws influence from David Lynch's Lost Highway, which itself has a similar premise to Losey's film. Spielberg's Schindler's List has a similarly caustic tone with moments of black as night comedy. Even Larry David seems to have referenced Mr. Klein in a season of Curb Your Enthusiasm when the none more Jewish David begins to believe he was actually born to Christian parents.

Brushed up in a swanky new restoration, Mr. Klein is primed to find a new audience. With the subject of cultural appropriation a hot button issue in recent years, it's lost none of its insight into how we relate to art and those who create it.

Mr. Klein
 is on UK blu-ray, DVD and digital from September 13th.