Blu-ray Review: Mr. Klein

STUDIO: Criterion Collection | DIRECTOR: Joseph Losey | CAST: Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, Francine Bergé, Juliet Berto, Jean Bouise, Suzanne Flon, Massimo Girotti, Michel Lonsdale
5/10/22 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: 2021 interviews with critic Michel Ciment and editor Henri Lanoë; interviews from 1976 with director Joseph Losey and actor Alain Delon; “Story of a Day,” a 1986 documentary on the real-life Vél d’Hiv Roundup
SPECS: NR | 123 mins | Drama | 1.66:1 | monaural | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Mr. Klein is an unusual creation that has retained its power over the years because it presents a Kafkaesque fiction — a man haunted by a case of mistaken identity — that is set against an authentic historical backdrop, that of Occupied France in WWII, when the Vichy government was handing Jews over to the Germans for extermination. This mixture of creepy fiction and terrifying reality has made the 1976 film a well-regarded thriller that also teaches us a disturbing history lesson.

The plot revolves around a gentile art dealer named Klein (Alain Delon) who is making a profit off of artwork sold in desperation by Jews. One day Klein realizes he’s being mistaken by different individuals (and the government’s Jewish registry board) for a Jewish man named Klein.

He goes searching for the man to confront him, but each time he gets close to encountering him, the other Klein disappears. His lawyer (Michel Lonsdale) makes arrangements for him to leave the country, but Klein is more concerned with meeting the man with his name, at any cost. The result is a stunning final scene that is based on a real historical incident that occurred in Paris in 1942.

The film works so well because of the ensemble of superb talent behind and in front of the camera, starting with Franco Solinas, the Italian screenwriter who scripted The Battle of Algiers and State of Siege. Solinas utilized real incidents and individuals in his script, but also crafted an evocatively paranoid tale of bureaucracy and confusion that would work in any time and place where one group is the subject of a genocide by a racist government.

Co-producer Delon made the perfect choice for a director. Joseph Losey was a master American filmmaker, whose own history of being blacklisted during the McCarthy era led to him becoming a leading British filmmaker (The Servant, Accident) and with Mr. Klein he became a great French filmmaker, despite the fact that he barely spoke any French. His skill at depicting confined spaces and characters gripped by paranoia was tailor-made for Klein and gave the film a frisson of film noir. (Losey made the great noir The Prowler in the U.S.)

For his part, Delon gives an excellent lead performance, giving Klein the necessary degree of initial unctuousness (as he fleeces a Jewish seller of a painting in his first scene) and obsessive desperation. The film connects to Delon’s previous work, as he had already played in Louis Malle’s off-kilter adaptation of Poe’s doppelganger story, “William Wilson” (in the anthology film Spirits of the Dead) and is clad in a trenchcoat and fedora here, conjuring up memories of his performance as the emotionless hitman in Melville’s Le Samourai.

The rest of the performers are equally well cast. Godard veteran Juliet Berto is suitably sympathetic as Klein’s mistress, and the icon Jeanne Moreau is suitably mysterious as the mistress of the other Klein. The always sublime Michel Lonsdale contributes to the film’s thriller side as Klein’s lawyer, who keeps trying to extricate his client-friend from the web of circumstance he keeps rushing into.

Aiding Losey in the creation of both dreamlike fiction and period realism here is British cinematographer Gerry Fisher, who worked with Losey on a number of films, including The Go-Between and Don Giovanni (1979), and was d.p. for “high-brow” films as well as thrillers that acquired cults (The Ninth Configuration, Wolfen, Highlander).

It is noted in the supplements that various cast and crew members lived through the time portrayed in the film. One of those was the Hungarian Alexander Trauner, who later in his career did production design or art direction for Wilder, Huston and Eastwood, but who established himself in France in the 1930s and ’40s on a sequence of classic films, including the timeless Children of Paradise (1945).

Alain Delon is Mr. Klein

The supplements do much to supply context for the real elements in the film, and also spell out what Losey brought to this atmospheric evocation of an era he didn’t live through.

The lengthiest extra is a documentary about the round-up of Jews at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (an indoor sports stadium and bicycle racing track) on July 16, 1942, which is the setting for the finale of the film. The documentary, which was made for French TV in 1986, reviews the strictures that were put in place during the Occupation. The Vichy government worked with the Nazis to deport foreign-born Jews from France to Germany (and the death camps); the final tally given in the film is that 75,00 Jews were deported and only 2,500 made it back. Several survivors open up at length and supply harrowing testimony as to what went on that day in the “Vel’ d’Hiv.” (With scenes from Mr. Klein inserted among archival footage to show what the event was like.)

The central thesis of the documentary is that the French police oversaw the whole operation themselves. The French authorities wanted to show the German that they could handle their own affairs, and so they were quite overeager in their gathering of Jews. So overeager that they rounded up many Jewish children, whom the Nazis had not asked for (and in fact did not want transported). Vichy leader Pierre Laval felt it would add a feather in the cap of the French authorities, so children were rounded up with their parents, leaving them to fend for themselves in prison camps.

A 2021 interview with editor Henri Lanoë finds him not only discussing his part in the creation of the film — he was recruited by Delon — but also the stunning accuracy of the production design and outdoors shoots, as Lanoë was a boy during the Occupation and has clear memories of the time.

Lanoë emphasizes the brilliance of Losey and Delon’s eagerness to work with the director. He does note, however, that Losey’s assured method of shooting — which resulted in many scenes being captured in one take — made the prone-to-dark-moods Delon explode in anger over what he felt was a scene that required several takes.

An audio segment from a 1976 interview with Losey conducted by French critic Michel Ciment includes the director reflecting on his being blacklisted in America, the fact that torture had become political “policy” in certain countries (Losey cites Brazil as an example), and the excellent casting of Delon — whom Losey describes as “self-destructive” and exhibiting contradictory behavior — as Klein. Above all, Losey stresses the notion of the French cooperation with the Nazis as being the main theme of the film; the director notes that each individual “must take responsibility for his actions.”

Ciment provides a trove of information about Losey and the film in a 48-minute video segment shot by Studiocanal in 2021. He calls Losey “the most European of American directors” and reviews the director’s life, including his bourgeois upbringing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and his joining the Communist party as a young man.

Losey’s work is explored at length, with Ciment noting that the director preferred “moral tales” and infused his work with a “feeling of suffocating confinement.” Ciment emphasizes three themes found in Losey’s best films: identity, humiliation and indifference.

Ciment’s opinions on Losey’s films are quite unconventional — he states outright that the director’s Secret Ceremony and Boom! are both masterpieces. (Some critics have reappraised Ceremony, but Boom! is considered a so-miscalculated-it’s-amazing camp classic by cinephiles like John Waters.) Ciment does acknowledge that Losey’s films were critical favorites, but that he never had a commercial success. (Although Klein did quite well in France on its opening weekend in ’76.)

Background is given on Klein, which began as a project for Costa-Gavras to direct. Ciment notes that Solinas reworked his original script when Losey was brought on the project. The critic notes that Sorrow and the Pity was indeed a watershed film for showing the dark side of France during the Occupation, but he holds fast to his belief that Mr. Klein is “the greatest film on the complicity of the French police during the Occupation.”

The most intriguing supplement is a segment from a 1976 French TV show that includes interviews with Delon and Losey. Delon speaks about the joy of working with Losey on the film, and how this experience differed from his initial film with the director (The Assassination of Trotsky, 1972). The question of whether the film could have been shot in English was discussed, according to Delon but, despite Losey’s inability to speak the language, it was decided that the subject matter was too inherently French to be shot in any other language.

For his part, Losey discusses the film in quite a serious fashion, noting the three tones of the film: “the horrible reality of what some French people did to other French people,” “an unreality, that of the war profiteers,” and “an abstract style showing the implacable bureaucratic machine.”

This last quote proves somewhat prescient, as Losey states that the bureaucracy in the film “[crushes] people like a streamroller.” He then adds, “With computers these days, it’s even more efficient. Once you’re in the computer, you can never escape for the rest of your life.”

Buy or Rent Mr. Klein

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”