Joseph Losey’s Monsieur Klein (Mr. Klein) is one of the exiled American director’s finest accomplishments. Shot in both Paris and Strasbourg between December 1975 and mid-February 1976, this existential thriller was the first of four films that Losey made in France while striving unsuccessfully to secure funding for Harold Pinter’s screenplay adaptation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, written by Pinter in 1972 but never filmed) (1). When funding fell through on the Proust project, Losey inherited Franco Solinas and Fernando Morandi’s screenplay of Mr. Klein from Greek-born political filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who backed out of the project (2). Despite eventually winning three César Awards, as well as being selected as France’s Palme d’Or entry at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, Losey’s Mr. Klein was probably an unwise interim project if it was designed to help woo additional French financiers to the Proust adaptation. Not only was the film a box office disappointment, but also, echoing the audience reception of the similarly-themed thriller Le locataire (The Tenant, Roman Polanski, 1976), French audiences were unsettled by the film’s unflattering depiction of French anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
Set in Nazi-occupied France in 1942 – a dark period of French history previously chronicled in Marcel Ophuls’ controversial documentary Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, 1969) – Mr. Klein serves as a psychological exploration of French indifference to the persecution of its Jewish inhabitants. 1942 was a significant year in the French government’s collaboration with the Nazi regime. As Renée Poznanski explains in her book Jews in France during World War II, rumours were circulating in early 1942 that the French Police had delivered files on 30,000 Jews to the Nazis and were preparing to arrest and deport Jews living in the northern occupied zone. These fears were subsequently realised in the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup, a two-day raid on the 16th and 17th July 1942, where 13,152 Jews were arrested and held temporarily at the Drancy and Véldrome d’Hiver internment camps, before later being shipped by train to Auschwitz (3). France’s complicity in these events is explored by Losey through the dark tale of a Frenchman enduring an identity crisis when he is falsely mistaken for a Jew.
In his second performance for Losey – the previous being his turn as the assassin Frank Jackson in the disappointing The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) – Alain Delon stars as Robert Klein, an upper-class French art dealer living in Nazi-occupied Paris. He earns a nefarious income by exploiting fleeing Jews by buying their art at far below market value. When purchasing baroque Dutch painter Adriaen van Ostade’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” for half of the Jewish seller’s (Jean Bouise) original asking price of 600 gold Louis, Klein apologises, half-heartedly, for the unpleasantness of his profession. “Very often I’d rather not buy”, Klein informs him. “Then don’t”, the seller replies bluntly. The severity of his profiteering from Jewish persecution is implied by Losey and his set decorators Pierre Duquesne and Oliver Gérard in the design of Klein’s Parisian apartment. Mirroring the production design of the overcrowded Chelsea townhouse in Losey’s The Servant (1963), Klein’s apartment is decorated with an incongruous assortment of mirrors, paintings, sculptures and tapestries. As Foster Hirsch observes, Losey visually implies Klein’s dual identity as a predator and a victim in the recurring image of a tapestry depicting a vulture pierced through the heart by an arrow: “[Klein] is a vulture, feeding off the misery of others as he buys paintings from fleeing Jews; but he too is pierced by the Nazi menace, vulnerable to its predatory attacks” (4). Klein is not only himself a predatory figure, but also is vulnerable (as is soon revealed) in a manner similar to his own victims.
As he escorts the seller out of his apartment, Klein finds a copy of Informations Juives, the city’s Jewish newspaper, lying in front of his door. At first believing the seller must have dropped the newspaper upon entry, Klein instead discovers that it bears his name and address. Well aware of the potential danger that being mistaken for a Jew can bring, Klein goes to the newspaper’s offices to exonerate himself. Not only does he discover that the Jewish newspaper serves as a means for the French police to keep track of the whereabouts of Jews, but he also learns that he may have been confused with a Jewish man of the same name. Klein thus embarks on an obsessive pursuit to find his Jewish doppelgänger, who he hopes will be able to clear up this case of mistaken identity. While the film’s plot of a “falsely accused man trying to exonerate himself” resembles a stereotypical Alfred Hitchcock thriller such as The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), or North by Northwest (1959), Losey problematises this formula through the incorporation of significant psychological and political elements. During this pursuit, Klein begins questioning his own identity, which is revealed to be more ambiguous than he originally believed.
Although the film opens with an intertitle asserting that “Mr. Klein is a fictitious character, a composite of the experiences of many individuals”, the title character’s pains to prove himself a Gentile invoke the memory of Marius Klein, the real-life Clermont-Ferrand shopkeeper interviewed in The Sorrow and the Pity. In 1942, the same year as that depicted in Losey’s film, Marius Klein and his brothers were falsely accused of being Jews, because of their family’s demographically ambiguous surname. As a self-serving measure to maintain his customers, as well as keep from finding himself arrested and deported by the French police, the shopkeeper took out a classified advertisement in Le Moniteur du Puy-de-Dôme, a daily newspaper owned by Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval, who was later executed by firing squad in 1945 for aiding the Nazi regime. This advertisement, which was renewed for the duration of the Nazi occupation, insisted he was born a Catholic in 1893 from an “ancient French family” in the commune of Dunkirk in Northern France. In an effort to elicit sympathy based on national pride, Marius Klein asserted that he and his four brothers were proud French veterans of World War I: one brother was killed, the remaining brothers were prisoners-of-war.
Over two decades later, when interviewed by Ophuls in The Sorrow and the Pity, Marius Klein still justified his selfish actions. As Miranda Pollard explains in her essay “Whose Sorrow? Whose Pity? Whose Pleasure? Framing Women in Occupied France”, Marius Klein’s lack of contrition masks an undercurrent of French anti-Semitism which helped enable Jewish persecution:
[Marius] Klein seems like a rather smug and disingenuous petit bourgeois. He denies his own prejudice, denies differentiating between those “who have done their duty to France”. He is presented in an ironic, almost detached way. His responsibility is cast off, somewhat patronizingly, as an ideological delusion. (5)
Whether Losey or Morandi and Solinas drew inspiration from this interview in The Sorrow and the Pity is inconclusive, but the similarities are striking. In each case, a newspaper serves as the forum that ultimately determines the fate of both men: clearing the name of the real-life Marius Klein, and serving to incriminate the fictional Robert Klein. More importantly, Robert Klein possesses a similar form of “denial” as Pollard describes above. Throughout his efforts to exonerate himself, Klein remains unwilling to admit his significant role in Jewish persecution. “This has nothing to do with me”, Klein screams infuriatingly, when the French police confiscate his art due to his inability to establish his identity. Of course, given how he obtained the art originally, these words of denial possess a bitter irony that continues to haunt the viewer long after Losey’s film has ended.
- David Caute, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, pp. 410-411.
- Michel Ciment, Conversations with Losey, Methuen, New York, 1985, p. 352.
- Renée Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, trans. Nathan Bracher, Brandeis University Press and University Press of New England, Hanover, 2001, pp. 260-267.
- Foster Hirsch, Joseph Losey, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1980, p. 186-187.
- Miranda Pollard, “Whose Sorrow? Whose Pity? Whose Pleasure? Framing Women in Occupied France”, Gender and Fascism in Modern France, ed. Melanie Hawthorne and Richard J. Golsan, Dartmouth College and University Press of New England, Hanover, 1997, p. 152.
Monsieur Klein/Mr. Klein (1976 France/Italy 123 mins)
Prod Co: Lira Films/Adel Productions/Nova Films (Paris)/Mondial Te-Fi (Rome) Prod: Raymond Danon, Alain Delon, Robert Kupferberg, Jean-Pierre LaBrande Dir: Joseph Losey Scr: Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi Phot: Gerry Fisher Ed: Marie Castro-Vasquez, Henri Lanoë, Michèle Neny Art Dir: Alexandre Trauner Mus: Egisto Macchi, Pierre Porte
Cast: Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Michel Lonsdale, Juliet Berto, Francine Bergé, Jean Bouise, Massimo Girotti