Mr. Klein

Joseph Losey directs a tale about moral apathy in the face of inevitable destruction.

 

 

Complicity is always the X factor in wartime. When bloodlust is at its peak, protestations of moral ambiguity are dismissed as the bleating of naifs and cowards. But ambiguity always returns. Liberators become oppressors, and dark gray tones bleed into what was once so clearly a black-and-white conflict. Finally, sadomasochism rears its head, a subject explored in such films as Night Porter, in which Dirk Bogarde plays a former SS officer in love with a Holocaust survivor he'd once tormented.

 

Bogarde was a long-time collaborator with director Joseph Losey, notably in 1963's The Servant, and Losey had explored power dynamics long before directing his 1976 feature Mr. Klein (released on DVD last month by Home Vision), a story of French apathy in the face of an impending Holocaust.

 

"Indifference is like a still, flat sea surrounding a drowning man," says one character, an apt summation of Mr. Klein's fate. Klein (Alain Delon) is a French art dealer who buys paintings on the cheap from impoverished Jews. He claims this troubles him, but it's only when a Jewish newsletter is accidentally delivered to his home that he takes action. Klein soon discovers that there is another man, possibly a Jew, who shares his name, and sets out to find him. But the other Klein proves elusive, and the titular Klein, too ambivalent to believe in his own demise, calmly goes about trying to clear up the little misunderstanding.

 

It is the imperturbable Delon (Le Cercle Rouge) who sets the tone for Mr. Klein, seldom letting on that he finds this doppelganger affair more than a trifle. Losey's direction is unusually restrained. The histrionic sex appeal of his earlier films (Modesty Blaise, Eva) is nowhere to be seen. The greater horrors of the time are excluded. Instead, Losey calmly captures the French populace at its most complicit, laughing along with German soldiers at a cabaret show that depicts a thieving, money-hungry Jew.

 

The harbingers of doom in Mr. Klein are often subtle, and its avoidance of standard thriller devices may turn off some viewers. Mr. Klein is not a film, like those of writer James Toback (The Gambler) or writer/director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus), about a man heedlessly in love with losing. Mr. Klein is about a man—and a nation—subconsciously welcoming the punishment their moral apathy deserves.

 

--Joshua Avram

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