Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976) tells a powerful story of mistaken identity, indifference, and remorse, set in the wartime occupied Paris, in 1942. French star Alain Delon offers one of his best and restrained performances in the titular character, as a wealthy art dealer exploiting the desperation of fleeing Jews to buy prestigious paintings at a cheaper rate. Mr. Klein was written by Franco Solinas, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Battle of Algiers (1966). Fernando Morandi and Costa-Gavras (Z, State of Siege) also collaborated on the original script (the film was supposed to be directed by Costa-Gavras). Although Mr. Klein faded into obscurity in the following decades, it was well received at the time of release (in France and overseas), bestowed with Cesar for Best Director and Best Film.

After a distressing prologue scene, the film opens at monsieur Robert Klein’s opulent home, his live-in girlfriend, Jeanine (Juliet Berto) applying make-up in the bathroom while we hear the conversation at the living room between the suave Mr. Klein and an agitated Jewish man (Jean Bouise). After buying a Dutch artist’s precious painting for a pittance, the self-centered Klein ushers his client out. At the doorstep, he finds a Jewish newspaper (Informations Juvies) with his name and address.

Believing that someone has played a joke on him, Klein enquires the newspaper’s editor. Of course, Mr. Klein is bothered since the social, political atmosphere in occupied Paris doesn’t allow such ‘jokes’ go unnoticed. It was the time where ‘No Jews Allowed’ signs are pasted across the cafes and restaurants across the city, and when distasteful parodies on Semitic races were acted out to elicit few laughs from the complicit (non-Jew) French populace.

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Mr. Klein

To his dismay, Mr. Klein finds out that there is another Robert Klein who bears some resemblance to him. In an attempt to clear his name, Klein finds his alleged doppelganger’s address, and visits the man’s seedy apartment. The concierge (Suzanne Flon) mistakes Klein for her tenant. He inspects the flat and pockets a negative. When he goes to develop the picture, the photographer recognizes Klein as the man in the fuzzy photo, taken with a girl and a German Shepard. Klein contacts his lawyer (Michel Lonsdale) and explains the trouble. Later, Klein receives a message from an unknown woman, inviting him to a mansion outside Paris. Klein takes up the invitation and meets middle-aged Florence (Jeanne Moreau), an aristocrat (possibly of Jewish descent). Florence immediately asserts that this is not her Klein, and likens her Klein to “a snake in hibernation until better season”.

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Robert Klein visits his wheel-chair bound father to question their ancestry. The old man strongly states, “We’ve been French and Catholic since Louis XIV”. But still, it would take some time to receive the appropriate certificates and prove his identity. Meanwhile, the police are at Klein’s doorstep to take away his prized possessions on the assumption that he is a Jew. His attempts to find the other Klein’s mysterious girlfriend (in the photo) turn into a failure. One day, Klein is visiteed by his doppelganger’s dog and he accepts it as his own, whereas his girlfriend silently leaves him. Aware of the persecution awaiting the French Jews, Klein with the help of his lawyer arranges for a false passport to leave France. But the turn of events force Klein to get off the train in order to pursue his nemesis as well as the double.

Mr. Klein’s brilliance lies in the way Joseph Losey subtly incorporates the hard-hitting historical truths. The prologue, totally unconnected to the story, shows a woman subjecting herself to a full-body examination as a doctor indifferently check in her for the ‘signs’ of Semitic racial features. The nonchalant body language of the doctor finds its echo in the next scene where the art dealer barters with the Jew in front of him. We find more associations with this scene and the former cold, medical examination scene, especially when Klein’s spoilt girlfriend checks her teeth while applying lipstick. We don’t find any visible signs of ‘inferior race’ on both the women based on these different forms of ‘examinations’.

The narrative then gradually tracks down how the indifference melts to make the man feel remorse and sympathy. The inward journey is finely juxtaposed alongside the prevalent atmosphere of racial prejudice. The nuanced writing indicts the French complicity without a hint of didacticism. The scenes of French police tenaciously rounding up the Jews are powerfully shot, particularly the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup sequence: a bus full of petrified and forcefully transported Jews stop at a traffic stop near a market square as the French people go on with their placid routine life.

American-born film-maker Joseph Losey sought exile in Britain in the early 1950s when he was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Mr. Losey made some of the great films in the 1960s, including The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) – both written by Harold Pinter – and King & Country (1964). Mr. Klein was clearly one of his best directorial efforts as the eerie filmic universe of paranoia and dread was meticulously constructed by Losey.

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The film-maker earlier maintains a distance from Robert Klein, gradually zeroing-in on his transgressions and indifferent attitude. When the narrative enters into the Kafkaesque territory, hinting at the possibility that Mr. Klein himself could become a victim, we are allowed to see things from his perspective. There’s an interesting point-of-view shot when Klein enters the chateau, the uncertainty of what awaits him is passed on to the viewer (mirror naturally becomes a key visual motif to depict Klein’s uncertainty over his own self).

The tapestry shown during the opening credits remains as a key image in charting the central character’s journey of self-sacrifice. The auctioneer, early in the narrative, offers a clear interpretation of what the image means (‘representing indifference followed by arrogance, greed, and finally remorse’). During his conversation with father, Klein states remorse, “like a vulture pierced by an arrow, but which continues to fly” (once again hinting at the tapestry). Mr. Klein may fall short in providing any deeper emotional truth (or acute psychological insight), regarding the central character’s obsession to ferret-out and meet his doppelganger. But Klein’s pursuit works perfectly on a metaphorical level; the narrative serving the purpose of expressing the grim historical reality of French Occupation. Furthermore, on a broader scale this richly designed metaphor can express our general indifference over the societal horrors while pretending that everything is ‘normal’.

 Mr. Klein Trailer

Mr. Klein Links: Imdb, Rotten Tomatoes

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

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