Tuesday, May 4, 2010

MR. KLEIN (1976)

Here's a satirical thriller set in Occupied France, written by Franco Solinas (Battle of Algiers, A Bullet for the General, Burn! etc), directed by expatriate American blacklistee Joseph Losey and starring Alain Delon, who co-produced the film. He agreed to the project on the condition that Losey, who directed him in The Assassination of Trotsky, do the honors here as well. Delon seemed able to shift with ease from action films like Tony Arzenta or Le Gitan to more arty fare like Losey's film. He must have seen the script as an acting challenge, and it certainly is in some respects.

Delon is the title character, Robert Klein the art dealer. He's making a killing off the plight of French Jews. They have to liquidate their assets, and he takes advantage of their necessity, offering them take-it-or-leave-it low prices that assure him of huge profits later. Klein is a Catholic of Dutch descent, so naturally when he escorts a Jewish seller out the door and finds a copy of a Jewish newspaper on his doorstep, he assumes that his client must have dropped it coming in. But the client has his own copy in his pocket, and the paper on the doorstep is addressed to Robert Klein.

The rest of the film follows Klein from the newspaper office to police headquarters and onto the trail of a second Robert Klein who seems to have taken steps to throw investigators onto our Robert's trail. While Robert follows the trail, we're reminded with increasing urgency that some big roundup of French Jews is in the works. That establishes Robert's peril as his efforts to clear his name only put him in deeper trouble. But I doubt whether audiences feel the normal sort of anxiety for our antihero. That opening scene primes us to accept the worst case scenario as Robert's just desserts. That's why I regard Mr. Klein as a satire rather than any other genre. Its subject is Robert's representative failure to recognize a larger injustice while worrying about himself. His failing is the failing of most French under the Occupation, Solinas and Losey suggest, for as the worm turns on him, his friends increasingly treat him as he treated Jews. Nor does he really learn his lesson; arrested and thrown onto a bus to the train station where Jews will be transported eastward, he snaps at a fellow prisoner who wonders what will happen: "It's none of my affair!"

A larger point is made in a prelude to Klein's story, in which a woman is subject to a ridiculous examination, including walking in the nude, in order to determine whether she might have Jewish characteristics. The doctor's determinations seem to be completely arbitrary, based on pseudo-science -- or science that seems pseudo by modern standards. Following this with Klein's hard bargaining invites us to see Klein's conduct as "Jewish," -- or to assume that it would look so to an anti-semite. Yet when we see his lawyer try the same kind of bargaining with the imperiled Klein, should we see him, presumably an impeccable Frenchman, as another "Jew?" You're left with the feeling that Klein isn't so much a victim of mistaken or confused identity (though some critics make much of the doppelganger aspect of the story) as he is a victim of a mania to label certain people as "Jews" for no good reason. Mr. Klein is less about anti-semitism than it is about the logic of a witch hunt, a subject with which Losey had some sympathetic experience.

Klein is a cold film, as satires often are. It has sharp cinematography by Gerry Fisher and excellent art direction throughout. Alain Delon's challenge playing Klein is to remain a basically unsympathetic character yet keep us interested in his quest and his jeopardy. In my opinion he solves the problem quite well, never playing for pathos or becoming a hero but projecting charismatic determination all the way to the end. I'd recommend Mr. Klein for Delon's fans first, and then for people interested in the Occupation subgenre that encompasses everything from Army of Shadows to Inglourious Basterds. It's not going to be to everyone's taste because of its cool approach to a tragic subject, but it should reward attentive viewing by people who share its mood.

The DVD comes with an English-dubbed trailer, but we'll have to settle for one in the original French, uploaded to YouTube by jorjones2222.


Dave said...

Really like this piece, Samuel, and I am glad that you were able to see this one. As I'm sure you remember, I actually chose this one as my pick for the best of 1976. It's definitely a nuanced work, and one that might not appeal to everyone, but agree that someone who loves a work like Army of Shadows or similar films definitely need to check this one out.

Samuel Wilson said...

Dave, it was your review during your year-by-year survey at Goodfella's Movie Blog that inspired me to track down Mr. Klein. I'm not about to rank it ahead of Taxi Driver or The Outlaw Josey Wales but it's a strong film that would now probably make my top ten for 1976. Thanks again for the recommendation.