Dites-moi, les Kleins, vous etes francais-francais…

Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)

…ou est-ce qu’il y a des juifs dans ta famille? It’s 1976 and everyone’s fleeing Old Labour to go into tax exile. Dirk is settling down in his Provencal farmhouse, Losey is in gay Paree starting a run of four French films with one that came as quite a shot in the arm after a lean period. Or; it’s 1942 and everyone’s doing their best to avoid their German masters, keep calm and carry on. Alain Delon is settling down in his lavishly-appointed townhouse to enjoy his ill-gotten gains as an art dealer, ripping off the Jews who need to sell their treasures at short notice. But when a newspaper for the Jewish community lands on his doormat, it seems that somebody out there has another idea…

Mr. Klein is a film about the occupation with not that much occupation in it. The people to fear are the zealous and merciless French police- whether their actions be right or wrong, they’ll unapologetically tell you “c’est la loi”. Now and again you see a German uniform pass in the streets, but people tend not to discuss it. As people will do, they instead throw themselves into their pains and pleasures, their dramas and melodramas and private obsessions. None more so that Robert Klein (Delon, quite brilliant in a difficult role), who gets drawn into a classic doppelganger mystery.

For somewhere out there, Klein has a double, and he’s determined to track down this ‘other Klein’. His Quixotic pursuit propels the story forward, and it’s engrossing mystery fare- courtesy of Franco Solinas (The Battle of Algiers). People point to the likes of Accident and say that on the few occasions Losey was given a script of geniune substance and quality, he pared down all his excess flourishes. The same could be said about Mr Klein.

It’s a sombre, shadowy picture. The few glimpses of opulence are thrown into perspective by the pallid, wintry, whitewashed look of Gerry Fisher’s photography- all bare trees, overcast skies and tatty courtyards the colour of porridge. Even Klein’s tiffany/art deco suffused house is shot to look claustrophobic; the ceilings look low, the hallway narrow, it has something of the house from The Servant about it. Needless to say, Losey’s camera swerves and glides like no other, utterly assured yet with an agitated feel. One particularly memorable take is a POV shot when Klein enters the stately home of the Jewish aristocrats; the camera follwing the valet round corners and stealing glances to either side.

Klein’s private mission and the wider story of what the police are up to aren’t brought together until the climax, but they are allowed to run in parallel. There’s an anti-semitic sketch in a cabaret club; as the camera weaves through the smiling, happy audience of German officers and fat bourgeoises quaffing Pernod, you almost feel it tremble with quiet, righteous disgust. Whilst Klein runs across Paris on his wild goose chase, we get occasional glimpses of police chiefs scrutinising maps of the city, preparing their fleet of vehicles, workmen setting up the Velodrome d’Hiver for the big round-up of Jews. These scenes are fairly understated, but the film opens with a fist in the face.

After the titles, the first shot is of a naked 40-something woman. For a second or two she looks trusting, yet apprehensive. Then a pair of hands invade the screen and upturn her lips roughly to expose the gums. We’re witnessing a ‘medical’ examination. The doctor pulls the woman’s hair, pulls at her skin as if it were play-dough, shoves a ruler up her nostrils; all the while describing each feature as “judaique” or “non-europeen”. He decides the woman “could well be Jewish, Armenian, or Arab. The case must be considered doubtful”. When the ordeal is over, the woman is shown into a crowded waiting room and asked for 15 francs by the secretary. People are actually paying for this.

We go straight from the clinic to a sleeping Juliette (Juliet Berto), lying on a fur rug in a skimpy negligée as she shows off her long legs. She’s woken by voices downstairs; Klein is arguing with a Jewish client who’s trying to sell his Dutch master. As Juliette staggers into a fabulous bathroom -black and white marble, strip lighting and floor-length mirrors- we hear the man’s disbelief at the derisory sum he’s being offered, a fraction of its real worth. Juliette concentrates on applying her lipstick.

Alain Delon’s Klein is a smarmy arsehole, cavorting in a gold dressing gown and tossing a bag of coins to his client like scraps to a dog. He insists the Jew make out a receipt, the wording of which he dictates. As the Jew writes, Klein scatters the coins onto the table before him, having the nerve to tell him that he finds these transactions ‘desagréable’ and ’embarrassant’. The client bites his lip and can’t wait to get away from this odious man, but has a look of quiet triumph when he sees the Informations Juives newspaper on Klein’s doormat. Dumbstruck, Delon stares at himself in the mirror; from now on he will stop transfixed every time he catches his reflection.

Klein wants this matter cleared up straightaway. However he fails to ingratiate himself with the newspaper staff when speculating that someone might have got him a subscription “as a practical joke”. The list of subscribers has been confiscated by the police, so he hot-foots it to the prefecture. There’s another Robert Klein on the list with a different address, but he’s making such a fuss that they take down Delon’s address too. He’s digging himself a bit of a hole.

That night Klein sits over his desk, trying to scrape off the label on his newspaper and find the original address it was forwarded from. The kittenish Juliette lies on the bed pouting, asking dumb questions about Moby Dick, swinging her knickers on the end of her foot and wondering why the hell her boyfriend is more interested in peeling off an address label than her negligée.

To the address, and here begins the doppelganger creepiness. The landlady is at the door, telling two detectives that she hardly ever saw Mr Klein, her old tenant- but oh, here he comes! Delon denies it and asks to see the flat for rent. It’s disgusting; filthy, mouldy, with rat droppings everywhere. The landlady isn’t very friendly either. But he finds a clue- some photo negatives in a copy of Moby Dick.

The photo developer claims to remember Delon- “your face is hidden in this, but you’re recognisable. Do you still have that car?” Klein II is with a girl and an alsatian dog. Later on in the film, an alsatian dog sees Klein in the street and follows him home- even kicks and shouts won’t get rid of it. The detectives are waiting when he gets home. His best friend, the prissy lawyer Pierre (Michel Lonsdale) is most concerned.

Soon, more mail for Klein II- a love letter from a ‘Florence’. If he doesn’t come this time “you’ll lose me forever, and that would be awful”. Helpfully, the letter tells him when the train leaves and where to get off- so he does. He finds himself at an aristocratic mansion; as we enter via the aforementioned POV take, painting-sized bare patches on the corridor wallpaper suggest the family are Jewish too.

The master of the house, Charles Xavier, receives Klein with bemused cordiality. Florence turns out to be Jeanne Moreau, or the lady of the house, who must get that letter back and barges into Klein’s bedroom in the small hours. She ignores his request to turn around while he puts some pants on. They flirt and have some light verbal sparring (“Is your Klein a Jew?” “Certainly not, I think he’s atheist”). Moreau is pushing 50 and starting to look a bit grannyish, but she’s still got that poise, and that smile, and you still would, just about. Or at least, Delon makes it clear that he would, but she abruptly leaves when a motorbike pulls up outside, and Delon watches them embrace; quite possibly Klein II. She is very frosty with him the morning after. A few days later, word gets to Pierre that their whole household has fled to Mexico.

Klein rushes back to town and into an opulent, gold-leaf cathedral. He’s late for Pierre’s son’s confirmation and everyone is pissed off. As the choirboys sing, he sheepishly nudges his way down the pew to Pierre, who confronts him with the Jewish question. Robert, are you or aren’t you?

This leads on to a little comic relief, as Klein takes a trip to Strasbourg to visit his dad and see if he can obtain his grandparents’ birth certificates; pushing his wheelchair along a canal, the huge gothic cathedral looming behind. Papa (Fellini turned the part down) isn’t used to visits without agenda; he sees through Klein’s vague reasons about “nostalgie de mes originies” and gets to the root of the matter. He’s a tempestuous xenophobic codger -probably very fond of the Maréchal- but fun with it as he furiously declares the Kleins to have been “Francais et Catholique depuis Louis XIV!”.

One of the four birth certificates has gone astray and Pierre is very worried. He suggests one of those medical examinations, but Klein is “not a horse” and dismisses his warnings. For Klein, saving his skin is now a maguffin and finding his double is urgent. He returns to Klein II’s old bedsit and recognises a girl’s boot, as worn by the can-can dancers at the anti-semitic cabaret. The landlady tells him to ask for ‘Isabelle’ at the theatre, where a beaming, sad-eyed chorus girl identifies his photo as ‘Cathy’, last seen at a certain Metro station. The next bleak morning, the station is filled with commuting factory girls. Some identify the photo as ‘Francoise’ and call over a friend of hers, who flatly denies that it’s her and tears up the photo. I vill say zis only vance, these girls know how to cover their tracks.

At home, the police are confiscating all Klein’s paintings. He’s now barred from all public places, “meme plus la pissotierre”. He flies into a rage when they try to take the Jew’s Dutch master, reminding them that it was him who took this case to the police in the first place. “Wouldn’t be the first time a man came forward the better to hide”, they shrug. As they continue their plunder, Pierre’s dumb wife picks up some sheet music by the piano and starts playing L’Internationale, with no idea what she’s doing. The policeman’s blood boils- Klein tells her to keep playing. Your case is going badly, K, perhaps you need a new advocate.

Enter Klein II’s dog, exit a sobbing Jeanine (once she’s actually put some clothes on). Another woman for a rival, she could understand- but not this. Klein barely notices her leave; a newspaper article about five dead resistance fighters catches his eye. Could Klein II have been one? He bribes the morgue attendant for a look but the bodies are disfigured. “I’d do the same as them, were I younger… or braver”, says the attendant.

But Klein is satisfied. Pierre obtains a fake passport, sells Klein’s remaining belongings for 10 million francs (minus a 5% cut) and puts him on a train to Marseille, where he can catch a boat. They say goodbye on a crowded platform and the train takes off. Poor Jeanine turns up and runs alongside the window, only to be told “Look after my dog. I don’t trust Pierre with it”. By coincidence, Klein spots the girl from the photo in his carraige and introduces himself as a friend of Robert Klein. He gets a slap in the face, but also finds out that Klein II never left his bedsit- he goes back every night to hide. Like von Aschenbach executing a U-turn to the Venice Lido, Delon rushes straight back to Paris, his fixation, and his doom.

Klein II answers the phone, they acknowledge one another and arrange a rendezvous (Delon standing before a painting of twin geishas). It’s out into noirish, lamplit streets that tingle with Klein’s excitement and anticipation; but Pierre has sent the police on ahead of Klein and he is denied what he craves. Nothing but a wailing landlady and a police van speeding off into the distance. Pierre’s attitude is no different from that of the police; “I had to do it, he’s a criminal”, he tells Klein stuffily. Klein pounces on Pierre like a panther, throttling him against the wall.

The next morning, the dreaded day of the round-up. Klein is one of thousands called upon and put onto a tram. These trams, crammed with people wearing yellow stars, drive through public squares. People continue to queue for rations, browse the vegetable stalls. One of the most shameful events in their country’s history is, to these ordinary folk, just another day. Klein scribbles a note, throws it out the window to a watching barrow boy, and gestures. The boy can’t decide whether to pick it up.

The trams unload at the Velodrome d’Hiver, people split into groups behind barbed wire fence. There are no violins, no tears trickling down children’s cheeks, no sentimental tricks; it’s more like documentary footage. Cold and clear, with nothing other than the realisation that this is what human beings do to other human beings. As you see families separated, the elderly manhandled, and the sheer number of people, the fate of Mr. Klein doesn’t just seem irrelevant; it’s altogether forgotten.

At the eleventh hour, the cavalry come for that priviliged fellow; Pierre is at the perimeter, waving the elusive fourth birth certificate. But Klein’s name is called out; at the other side of the crowd, Klein II puts his hand up and disappears through the doors. Delon tells his friend “I’ll be back” and runs in pursuit. The crowd swarm into a tunnel, and onto a freight train; the Jew with the Dutch painting is in Delon’s carriage. The dictionary definition of doppelganger tells us that “seeing one’s own doppelgänger is an omen of death, or results in immediate death upon the two coming face to face.”

This week’s NFT screening was followed by a Q&A with Patricia Losey, the great man’s wife for the final third of his life. Most of the talk was raking over the French occupation, but she was at pains to express that in a field full of heroic resistors and wicked collabos, Mr. Klein was a film above all about indifference; and to her credit, she  said any of us would probably have done as most French did. If her own next-door neighbours were taken away, and to protest would put her in danger… One punter said that he was baffled that Visconti pretty-boy Alain Delon should feel so strongly about this film that he should be the one to take on the twin burden of star and producer, plus put the cash up and fight to get it made. Mrs Losey was in full agreement; “and were he here tonight, perhaps he’d tell us why. Or perhaps he wouldn’t”.


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