Mr. Klein is a not a fiction, but a “composite” so the opening titles inform us. As a material character, however, Robert Klein quickly demonstrates his flaws. Klein wears a gold/cobalt bathrobe, negotiating a bargain price for a fine Dutch painting from a Jew who, like many in Europe in 1942, is desperate to sell. This is Klein’s business. We see his girlfriend Juliette upstairs, frolicking in her negligée and applying makeup as she overhears the transaction below. Klein tries to seem embarrassed about his business, but his unscrupulousness is obvious to the reluctant seller and to us. His barely-suppressed pleasure is evident when he has the man write out a receipt to his exact specifications. A subjective camera is sympathetic to its subject and the profiteer here is the ever-charming Alain Delon. We will be made to walk in Klein’s footsteps and follow his gaze with more than a few first-person camera movements, including a long take past the door and through the hallways of a country villa decked with antiques and ornamented with fashionable wares, the same kind of ill-gotten stuff that clutters his apartment. Klein is a people’s troubled conscience. I wonder if a director is courageous enough to portrait Adolph Hitler with a similar subjectivity.
So Klein is a Paris art dealer in Vichy France, one of many who partake in the wholesale sacking of Jewish-owned art. The auctions are formal affairs. We see Klein present at one where an unusual tapestry, symbolic art featuring a pierced bird-of-prey surrounded by cabalistic circles, is being sold for next to nothing. As we will see, Klein’s apartment has several similar tapestries adorning the walls. Suddenly, he receives a Jewish newspaper in the mail addressed to a man of the same name. Reason enough to be paranoid. Though he notifies the police of the mistaken identity, it is exactly his curiosity and desire to clear up the matter quickly that piques their suspicion. Back at his home, Klein is attempting to peel off the label of his newspaper to find the original address it was forwarded from while Juliette’s fawning on the bed goes ignored.
Cut to the address and two detectives are there before him asking the landlady a few questions. She sees our Klein and mistakes him for the other Robert Klein, her once-tenant. Klein states his business; he wants to rent the vacant apartment for a friend. The landlady is nervous and enervated but shows him the apartment anyway. It is cluttered with the other Klein’s stuff and looks so disgusting you can almost smell it, rat droppings everywhere. The other Klein is in the middle of “Moby Dick”, a book Juliette read aloud in an earlier scene. In that book, hunter and hunted are purposefully and repeatedly confused. Klein like Ahab is following his white whale. A photo negative used as a bookmark is developed revealing the other Klein on a motorbike with a girl, his face obscured. The girl has three names and Klein will eventually chase them all.
Suddenly another piece of mail arrives, a letter from a gal named Florence urging Klein to come to her, telling him what train to get on and when. Of course Klein goes. The train takes him to an aristocratic mansion, sequestered in the snow-bitten wilderness. Klein enters with the aforementioned POV take, the corridor’s wallpaper bearing the impressions of former paintings tell us this is a Jewish home that has been forced to sell its high art. He is received cordially and tells his story to the master of the estate and to Florence (an exquisitely-aged Jeanne Moreau) who is interested in getting her letter back. They don’t know what’s become of the second Klein either. Florence steals into Klein’s room in the night and demands the letter, the two flirt and exchange musings over the other Klein and his beliefs. She calls Klein a bird-of-prey and says her Klein is a romantic and a moralist and, when asked about his Jewishness, she declares him an atheist. The arrival of a motorbike outside interrupts their exchange. She runs out to meet it in the frosty night under a pallid moon as Klein watches from his window. He must realize it’s the shadow he’s been chasing, but he doesn’t pursue. It’s almost as if he wants to get as close as possible to his doppelgänger without actually meeting him.
The other side of the story is Klein trying to clear up his identity with the authorities. Essentially, he incriminates himself as a Jew while making every effort to prove the veracity of his French-Catholic identity, even turning over the birth records of his great-grandparents to the authorities to clear his name. His friend Pierre is trying to assist him in the whole affair, but usually steps on his toes. He suggests that Klein get a medical examination to no avail. Eventually Pierre will obtain for him a passport and attempt to sell his belongings. Meanwhile, Klein’s artwork is confiscated by the police. He protests that it was he who took the case to the police in the first place. They express indifference or contempt: “wouldn’t be the first time a man came forward, the better to hide”. Pierre’s wife picks up some sheet music and begins playing “L’Internationale” on Klein’s piano which sends the police into a rage. Klein tells her to play on. He is beginning to care more about finding his double than saving his skin. The hunt consumes him.
The sharp contrasts of the many-hued rooms, alternately bright and muted—as well as the contrast between Klein’s spacious, caprice-filled flat and the copper-green, rat-infested, facade-peeling decay of his double’s cramped apartment—signal an insular world that lacks a wider identity or purpose. France is an occupied country, but you wouldn’t know it from the private industry and nonchalance of Mr. Klein and his bon vivant friends. It would seem these characters have no qualms at all over the Vichy administration, in spite of their complicity with the German military. This film is notable for the lack of German officers or SS. It forms a damning critique of French obeisance and acquiescence in the face of obvious horrors. The sole visible German soldier is present at a cabaret that Klein attends with Juliette. A Jew-bashing play is being performed. The Jewish character is represented as a gold-hungry caricature, one that more accurately resembles Klein himself. It receives raucous laughter and applause from all in attendance.
One could use the weary descriptor kafkaesque to describe the kind of political noir that Losey plays with, and it would suffice. It’s the politics that are ultimately important here. Discovery of the identity of the double is a rabbit-hole that Klein wittingly tumbles into, and that Losey tempts us with too. He also attempts to lead us out of the puzzle with compositions that frequently have Klein reflected in surfaces, gazing or being gazed at through windows and spied from other rooms via open doors or canted hallways. The film is beautifully conceived and composed. It has a completeness that feels as if it was storyboarded meticulously and then shot in accord with those limits. The color contrast and light-levels have that thick, painterly quality that marks so many beautiful films of the ’70s. It’s just night-laden enough to ring true as a noir, though the protagonist here is seduced and undone by himself. Losey was also careful not to be too careful. There’s enough scene detail and unresolved intrigue here to invite multiple viewings.
The film begs the question of racial identity. It opens with a downright veterinary examination of a little 40ish woman, who may or may not have Jewish blood. The doctor pulls her lips, tugs at her hair, takes note of the structure of her face, her shoulders, her proportions looking for anything Levantine. The doctor concludes her case is doubtful. Afterwards we find she and her husband settling up with a secretary. She is actually paying for this humiliation. So what makes a Jew? Physiognomy? Religious observance? Customs? As Klein himself demonstrates, it is not at all clear. He has been labeled one simply due to possession of a Jewish periodical. Eventually he’s detained, tossed on a bus with Jewish cargo—men and women and children with Star of David armbands—and trucked to a detention area that waits for the ominous trains that figure so heavily in Holocaust-themed artwork.
Losey has shown us the construction of the detention area periodically. At the beginning of the film we see men carrying signs with embossed letters that will come to stand for the last names of Jew detainees. When Klein arrives it is already familiar to us. The ending is logical and brilliant, though you may not see it coming. Klein feels like a man relentlessly pulled toward a false destiny, like a current got hold of him and took him somewhere unexpected. Yet he is complicit in the acts that are being carried out against him. Klein lost in the throng is an allegory for the Jewish plight. We can imagine that, like those hunted by the authorities in so many numbers in those years, if he has reformed at all then he is forced to reassess his identity, his heritage weighed against the compass of his heart.