(French, 1976, 123 minutes, color, 16mm in French with English subtitles)
Directed by Joseph Losey
"Mr. Klein," which opened yesterday the 68th Street Playhouse, is a cool, elegantly dressed movie that at first appears to take a dim view of moral opportunism, almost as if it were a breach of good manners, like wearing Mickey Mouse cufflinks with a dinner jacket. It's the story of the dandyish Robert Klein (Alain Delon), a successful upper-class entrepreneur whose life in the Nazi-occupied Paris of 1942 is probably not much different than it was before the war, except that he doesn't hesitate to deal in objets d'art being sold by Jewish refugees desperate for cash.
Klein's settled existence (a handsome house, high-toned friends, a sexy mistress he more or less confines to bed) is suddenly broken one morning when he finds at his door a copy of the local Jewish newspaper addressed to him and apparently sent to him on more than a 13-week trial-subscription basis. The Roman Catholic, Alsatian-born Klein has nothing against Jews-- he sympathizes with his Jewish clients-- but it could be terribly inconvenient if the authorities came to believe that he himself was Jewish.
As Klein sets about to unravel the mystery of the newspaper subscription, he discovers what appears to be a plot to destroy him by another Robert Klein, who apparently bears some resemblance to him and who is a Jewish member of the Resistance. Klein's friends think that he may be losing his mind. The police, to whom he reports the story of the other Klein, believe that as a Jew he is trying to throw them off his track with a confusion of Kleins.
..."Mr. Klein" is a seductive picture to watch, splendidly visual, witty, and concerned with ideas that are fashionable without being at all disturbing.
— Vincent Canby, The New York Times, November 7, 1977
The film career of Joseph Losey, the American expatriate director, who left his home country in the wake of the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, had been marked with controversy from the filming of his initial feature, The Boy with Green Hair in 1946, which RKO owner Howard Hughes reedited for political reasons before finally releasing the film two years later. For a number of years Losey toiled, often pseudonymously, on low-budget features in Great Britain before achieving success and notoriety with a trilogy of collaborations-- The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1971)-- with noted playwright Harold Pinter. By that time Losey had been canonized by the editors of the prestigious French cinema journal Cahiers du cinema and had entered into their pantheon of film directors, though his work often engendered critical controversy in the United States.
Losey frequently explored issues of social stratification and emotional estrangement while simultaneously keeping the spectator at a dispassionate distance from his characters, a strategy developed during his years in the leftist theater of the 1930s and a lengthy personal alliance with Bertolt Brecht. Losey translated his modernist sensibility into a narrative style which attempted to disrupt conventional Hollywood codes of spatial and temporal continuity, as well as typical notions of characterization and story. These inclinations-- which flourished during his three decades of European exile-- might have met with more opposition in the more conservative feature-film industry in the United States.
Mr. Klein was Losey's first French-language film, though he had previously shot English features in France and had the unusual honor of being nominated as that country's entry in the competition at Cannes. When this film premiered, however, it met with an initially negative chorus from critics and public alike, who viewed Losey's depiction of French collaboration with the Nazis as a betrayal of the artistic hospitality accorded the director. The sensitive subject of the story-- an indictment of the indifference of the French people for the plight of their Jewish fellow citizens during World War II-- eventually precipitated a serious public debate in France and was subsequently honored at its Academy Awards with four Cesars, including awards for best film and direction.
Mr. Klein is undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of the postwar French cinema; Losey's vaunted visual style is here fused with a brilliantly original scenario by Franco Solinas which captures in chilling detail the complicity of the French citizenry in the anti-Semitism of the Nazi occupiers. Of the few films which even tangentially touch on this topic, including Vittorio De Sica's Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), a chronicle of an aristocratic Jewish family caught in Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy, none has so clearly and effectively articulated the casual acceptance of anti-Semitism in Western Europe. Losey's achievement is magnified by the sophistication of the narrative exposition, which places the theme within the framework of an unconventional psychological detective thriller.
...[As Klein becomes increasingly trapped in his predicament,] Losey's camera becomes increasingly deterministic, capturing Klein with angles and compositions, enclosing him within the frame. The palette of colors becomes significantly muted: Paris is drained of color, and the tone is shifted to blue and black. Losey's effective use of mirrors, especially in a restaurant scene where Klein nearly meets his double, underscores the director's subtle subversion of conventional narrative development. The attention to offscreen space developed in the initial scenes, in which the significant action is rendered by unseen characters, is continued throughout the film. In fact, nearly all important activity takes place offscreen; Robert Klein is reduced to reacting to events precipitated by his unseen "other."
...Though Klein reiterates throughout the film that he is not accountable for the ethical issues-- "It has nothing to do with me"-- a twist of fate has made him an unwilling partner in the equation. The power of the film is developed from this rigorous premise; Robert Klein is never presented as consciously developing a sudden insight and accepting his role as a reluctant martyr-- an evolution which would be specious and offensively condescending. Losey, like his colleague Brecht, assiduously avoids the conventions of melodrama; in less skillful hands, this material might have been hopelessly maudlin. In Mr. Klein, the director counters the audience's identification with Alain Delon, an appealing presence on-screen, with the callous indifference of the role, thereby creating a dynamic tension which demands attention to the issues. Losey, who has been justly celebrated for the perfection of his mise en scene, here finds a worthy subject for these skills. Mr. Klein, a film which is elliptically terse in expository dialogue, is exceedingly eloquent in details.... Though directed by an American, Mr. Klein is one of the great achievements of French cinema-- a powerful film which is both brutally honest and poignantly resonant.
— Magill's Survey of Foreign Cinema
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