Mr Klein

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Mr Klein is a film about a mindset as much as a man or an event. The event is the Holocaust, the mindset is of a man called Mr Klein, played by Alain Delon, a French art dealer who, one day in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Paris, is tagged as being a Jew. But he isn’t Jewish, Mr Klein insists. Why the idea is laughable, absurd. Somewhere in Paris there’s obviously another Monsieur Klein who is Jewish, but I’m not that guy. This is nothing more than a simple case of mistaken identity. And for the rest of the film Monsieur Klein keeps up his protestations, turning detective to try and flush out the other, genuinely Jewish, M. Klein, while the police and collaborating authorities edge ever closer.

Director Joseph Losey opens in a medical examination room where a naked woman is being assessed “scientifically” by a doctor who, fairly brutally, is measuring the flare of her nostrils, the position of her hairline, the colour of her skin (“swarthy”) and a host of other physical characteristics which will allow him to assign her to a racial grouping. We assume this is the Nazis at work and that the woman is a prisoner. In fact, in shock ending to the scene, it turns out this is a voluntary examination. The woman has paid for the doctor’s attention. What she’s after is an official certificate stating, medically, that she does not belong to the Jewish race.

The irony is, the more important the certificate is to you, the less likely you are to get it.

It is Robert Klein’s predicament in miniature. Is M. Klein in fact Jewish and hiding the fact, possibly even from himself? We never know. Losey and Delon (who is also the producer) are after something more nuanced than a bald fact.

M. Klein’s predicament is not just Kafkaesque, it is almost the plot of Kafka’s The Trial (man accused of non-specific crime protests his innocence all the way to his execution) transposed to wartime Paris.

Florence (Jeanne Moreau)
Meet Mrs Klein (Jeanne Moreau)

What a sinister, paranoid atmosphere of weird dislocation and impending doom Losey conjures up. His camera holds back or jerks suddenly into close-up. The lighting is stark with pools of shadows often engulfing people, particularly representatives of the law. There are long static takes, and measured, slightly withdrawn performances. Barely any music. Though in each of these cases – lighting, length of take, movement of camera, style of performance, lack of music, Losey and co break their self-imposed rules at certain points for sudden moments of heightened drama. At one point Delon shouts furiously. It’s a genuine shock.

Apart from Mister Klein’s ethnicity, the practical question the film poses is about the existence or otherwise of this other Mister Klein. As “our” Klein tries to find the other one, the film plays out like a noir thriller rather than a Holocaust movie, with visits to the filthy house where the other Klein lives, interviews with lovers, acquaintances and his landlady, almost all of whom remark on how similar this Klein looks to their Klein.

The doubling of Klein might be some statement on Jewish identity, it might not. At the very least it’s a useful Maguffin driving the film forwards – our man is looking for something and seems very insistent on finding it. Why so insistent?

The film went down like a cup of cold sick when it was released in France in 1976, and in spite of Delon’s huge box-office appeal at the time, the crowds stayed away. They were unhappy at the depiction of collaboration between their countrymen and the Nazis. Delon, Losey and Mr Klein were calling time on the cosy myth that everyone in France during the Second World War was in the Resistance.

Most disconcerting was Losey’s re-enactment of the Vél d’Hiv round-up, when over 13,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested in July 1942 and incarcerated for days in the Vélodrome d’Hiver cycling stadium before being transported off to Auschwitz, a French operation carried out at the behest of the Nazis.

This comes as the film winds towards its pitiful close and acts as a reminder that this isn’t really just one man’s story. And that what looks like a noirish thriller should also come with a health warning about the perils of wilful ignorance, personal and national.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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