Joseph Losey’s Mr Klein, starring the acting legend Alain Delon in one of his finest performances, is about World War II Europe but actually about intolerance anywhere in the world at any point of time.
In the 1976 French-language production’s examination of anti-Semitism, Indian viewers might find a troubling parallel with the Islamophobia raging through our country.
Mr Klein, which is out on MUBI, is about the predicament of Robert Klein (Delon), a Christian art dealer in occupied France whose recent clients include fleeing Jews forced to sell their family heirlooms cheap. Cold is the blood in Klein’s veins and his belief that it’s all just business. But is his blood Semitic? Klein becomes the target of a cruel cosmic joke: he is mistaken for another Robert Klein, who is Jewish and a possible anarchist.
The question of racial identity is of great importance in 1942 in France, which is under Nazi rule. Beyond the wealthy Klein’s well-appointed apartment, Jews are treated as second-class citizens and cafes have signs forbidding their entry.
On the surface, Mr Klein belongs to the strain of thrillers about mistaken identity. The philosophical concept of doubling, which has inspired works in literature and cinema, also runs through Klein’s mission to prove that he is distinct from the man with whom he is being frequently confused.
Shot by Joseph Losey’s long-time collaborator Gerry Fisher, the film has several moments of tension as Klein attempts unmask his namesake. Fisher’s magnificently smooth camera movements, long takes and shots of Klein looking at his reflection in a mirror – also recurring features of Losey’s films – create an unsettling atmosphere of creeping dread.
Yet, Mr Klein is bereft of the gimmicks used in movies of this type, such as chiaroscuro lighting and weird camera angles. There are no mystical allusions to doppelgangers, as is the case in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece The Double Life of Veronique (1991), which is also on MUBI.
Stylisation of such a sensitive subject can only go this far. The screenplay by Fernando Morandi and Franco Solinas (who also wrote Gillo Pontecorvo’s political thriller The Battle of Algiers) acknowledges the horrors of the Holocaust, which is already underway in the period in which the film is set.
Mr Klein opens with one of the most terrifying scenes in cinema: a close-up of a woman being examined from head to toe for Semitic traits. Her head is yanked this way and that; her teeth are pulled back over her gums; she is made to parade her naked body across the room.
The sequence brings to mind philosopher Hannah Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil”, which appears in Eichmann in Jerusalem, her reported account of Holocaust participant Adolf Eichmann’s trial after World War II. Arendt also authored The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she observes that totalitarian governments impose on the world “a kind of supersense which the ideologies actually always meant when they pretended to have found the key to history or the solution to the riddles of the universe”. This “supersense”, Arendt argues, “is necessary for totalitarianism to destroy every trace of what we call human dignity”.
Arendt writes, “No ideology which aims at the explanation of all historical events of the past and at mapping out the course of all events in the future can bear the unpredictability which springs from the fact that men are creative, that they can bring forward something so new that nobody foresaw it.” Her words haunt the scenes in which Klein faces his Kafkaesque nightmare and the moment the doctor examining the woman blandly delivers his verdict: “Facial expression more or less Jewish. Attitudes during examination not Jewish.”
Joseph Losey’s films have often been analysed in the light of the persecution he faced from American authorities over his Communist leanings. Blacklisted by Hollywood studios in the 1950s, the prolific American filmmaker decamped to the United Kingdom, where he made some of his best-regarded works.
A foreshadowing of Losey’s fate was provided by the allegorical dramas he directed in Hollywood in the early 1950s. He remade Fritz Lang’s silent-era classic M, about the hunt for a child-killer in Berlin that triggers public paranoia and calls for mob justice. In The Criminal, King & Country and The Prowler, Losey dared to examine difficult aspects of human nature by setting aside judgement and seeing people for what they really were, rather than what they should be.
These films are not screeds with simplistic moralising. Apart from their narrative complexities, they are beautifully filmed and performed, expanding our understanding of the human condition as well as the possibilities of the cinematic form.
MUBI has two other films by Losey, both made after he migrated to England. Eva, starring Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau, is an acrid Venice-set chronicle of an arrogant writer’s entanglement with a sex worker.
The other Losey film on MUBI is his masterwork The Servant, one of four collaborations with playwright Harold Pinter. The 1951 black-and-white drama, a blistering takedown of class hierarchies in British society, belongs to a category of cinema about the upstairs and the downstairs, ranging from The Rules of the Game (1939) to Parasite (2019) via Fox and His Friends (1975).
The Servant examines the shifting power dynamics between an immature businessman and his manservant. Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) mounts an insurrection against his employer that leads to a surrealistic climax in which the divide between the classes comes undone.
Stacked with Losey’s trademark flourishes – claustrophobic interiors, long and fluid takes, scenes involving mirrors, nightmarish moments – The Servant is, like Mr Klein, about the particular and the general. These films speak to the anxieties of their times while also transcending their settings and resonating in just about any context anywhere on the planet.