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  • Ravi Swami

"Mr Klein", Dir: Joseph Losey, 1976

Continuing a thread of Alain Delon films available in a retrospective collection on Criterion Channel, I watched "Monsieur Klein" (Eng: "Mr Klein"), produced by Delon himself via his own production company and it's possibly the darkest of his films next to "Plein Soleil" since it is set during the Nazi occupation of France just prior to the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

Joseph Losey, himself a refugee from the Nazis, was probably the ideal choice of director for a Kafka-esque exploration of identity in the climate of suspicion that followed Nazi occupation as Jews strived to hide their heritage to escape identification and persecution.

The film opens with a disturbing scene of a French doctor examining a naked Jewish woman for the purposes of biometrics as he reels off supposed identifying features while using a variety of measuring instruments, before shifting to the apartment of a wealthy art dealer, "Mr Klein" (Delon) where we hear him on the phone conducting the purchase of a painting from its' Jewish owner as another potential customer, also a Jew, waits for an appraisal.

Klein's girlfriend listens to the conversation from an adjoining bedroom and once the sale is agreed Klein addresses the waiting customer.

This sets up the scenario of the art dealer Klein who makes money off the sale of art pieces from Jewish citizens eager to free up cash to stop them getting into the hands of the Nazis and also to use the funds to escape the country.

At no time is there a sense that Klein is himself anti-Jewish or that he is siding with the with the Nazis, as indeed many French did at the time, largely out of fear - to him it is just business and he is doing quite well out of it.

However, when he finds a newspaper from a Jewish publisher outside his apartment and that is addressed to him, he wonders why it has been sent to him since despite his surname, as far as he is aware he is not Jewish.

He visits the offices of the newspaper to get to the bottom of the mystery and is informed by the publisher that the paper was simply following a mailing list of Jewish surnames in the area - an answer that leaves him baffled and unsatisfied.

The mystery deepens and a clue is offered up when he checks his mail and finds a letter addressed to him requesting him to meet at a particular location for a rendezvous with a mysterious woman and he wonders if this is a case of mistaken identity due to his surname.

In the meantime, he discovers the location of an apartment occupied by another "Mr Klein" and asks the landlady if he can purchase it but she is suspicious of his intentions especially when a couple of Gestapo officers arrive asking for the whereabouts of a "Mr Klein" who was resident at the address.

The vacated apartment offers another clue in the form of a pair of boots as worn by a cabaret dancer and leads Klein to a cabaret where he asks the dancers if they know of a Mr Klein but each of these leads are blind alleys and he is no wiser as to the identity of the other Mr Klein.

He follows the directions in the letter he received and eventually arrives at a grand country house during a party where he meets a woman, played by Jeanne Moreau, who reveals herself to be Jewish and who is presumably the secret lover of the other Mr Klein, something that is confirmed when he sees her meeting a mysterious man who arrives on a motorbike before rushing back to the house so her husband doesn't discover their tryst.

Fearful that the arrival of her lover will expose her affair, she plays along with this other "Mr Klein" (Delon) and for the sake of her husband pretends that she doesn't know who he is and that he may just be someone who has lost his way, offering him the opportunity to the stay the night before leaving.

Later he meets his elderly father to discuss details of his family and heritage in order to establish that he is not Jewish, which his father confirms, since "Klein" is also a common German surname.

When he discovers that the real Mr Klein is due to return to his dingy apartment he rushes to the location to clear up the misunderstanding and ask him why his mail has been directed to his address, which has the unfortunate consequence that the Gestapo have identified him as Jewish and have confiscated all his artworks and left him in financial ruin despite his protestations, and added to this, his girlfriend leaves him.

However, it is too late and just as he arrives the other Mr Klein is arrested by the Gestapo and forced to join the coaches and trams ferrying Jews to the railway station for deportation to concentration camps and the horror that awaited them.

Mr Klein's friends offer to help him with an offer of false papers to escape France that will disguise his identity since by now the Gestapo have decided that he is Jewish on the basis of his surname and his business as an art dealer.

He is arrested and thrown onto a tram and at the destination, a crowded train station, his friends call out to him waving the forged papers but he is swept along in the panic and appears to offer no resistance until he is shoved onto a cattle truck for an uncertain fate, and behind him we see the man he purchased the painting from at the start as we hear the words of his phone transaction from the start of the film - an ominous reminder of the cold-blooded way in which he conducted his business.

After watching the film it left me wondering if Klein himself was hiding behind an identity and was actually Jewish and that the other "Klein" was him all along - a kind of doppelgänger - though it is clear that the other Mr Klein was trying to divert attention from himself to avoid capture by the Gestapo, and the landlady was his former mistress who is trying to hide him from the authorities.

I was initially reluctant to watch this film due to the subject but given recent events it seems especially prescient in terms of the fostering of a climate of paranoia, lies and concealment of the truth that could occur in similar circumstances but the film has considerable impact in delivering its message and it feels as if Delon was personally invested in the subject as an opportunity to take on weightier roles.

"Monsieur Klein", Dir Joseph Losey, 1976

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