Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Monsieur Klein

France under the German Occupation, which Albert Camus, on the day of Paris' liberation, described as "four years of a monstrous history and an unspeakable struggle that saw France at grips with its shame and its fury," was a nightmare from which the French were lucky to awake. Much of the interest and controversy aroused by Marcel Ophuls' documentary The Sorrow and the Pity was due to the refusal of most Frenchmen to talk about the era. That film confirmed what most people already suspected, that the French Resistance, while heroic, was carried out in the midst of a population that collaborated either actively or passively.  

Not surprisingly, most French films that deal with the period, like The Battle of the Rails, and the recent Silence of the Sea, Shadow Women and Lucie Aubrac, are concerned with some aspects of the Resistance, and not with the everyday lives of ordinary French people during the Occupation. Shortly after the release of The Sorrow and the Pity, Louis Malle (who, it turned out, had a guilt complex about the subject, as Au Revoir les Enfants exposed), made Lacombe Lucien, a brilliant film about a young hick who joins the enforcers of the Occupation. 

The recent discovery of hundreds of artworks once considered lost - many of which have been missing since they were confiscated from their Jewish owners by the Nazis - in the house of an Austrian citizen named Cornelius Gorling has made Joseph Losey's film M Klein (1976) seem much more timely. The plot of the film concerns a black market dealer in German-occupied France in 1942, who buys up artworks that Jews have to sell for cash. 

A title at the opening of the film states, with deliberate vagueness:

"Mr. Klein is a fictitious character, a composite of the experiences of many individuals. The facts are a matter of history. They took place in France in 1942."

Which leaves the viewer to decide what is fact or fiction. Robert Klein, played with cool confidence by Alain Delon, cheats his clientele. "It's easy for you when a man is forced to sell," a desperate owner of a painting by Adriaen van Ostade tells him. 

"But I'm not forced to buy." Klein replies. "I'm not a collector. For me it's just a job." He expresses regret for having to buy from those who are compelled to sell. "I've seen many clients like you, urgently needing to sell. And I assure you it's most unpleasant for me. Embarrassing. Very often I'd rather not buy."

"Then don't buy," the client (Jean Bouise) tells him. 

Showing the client out of his chic Paris apartment, Klein finds a small newspaper, "Informations Juives," on the floor outside his door. Thinking his client must've dropped it, he tries to hand it to him. His client assures him that the newspaper isn't his. The paper is addressed to a Robert Klein, and Klein spends the rest of the film trying to prove that there must be some other Robert Klein - a Frenchman, but also a Jew. His sense of urgency increases when the "authorities" (all Frenchmen) begin rounding up Jews for their eventual deportation to camps in the east.

Visiting the newspaper's offices, the editor admits to Klein that "It's strange" that Klein's name turned up on a list of subscribers: "Unless someone else, perhaps a friend of yours, as a gift . . ."

"That's impossible," Klein insists. "No one would play that sort of joke on me." 

"You think we make a good subject for jokes?" the editor asks. Of course, the authorities permitted the publication of the journal so that it can keep track of Jews. I will call the two Kleins Klein 1 and Klein 2 to avoid confusion. Klein 2 has a different address from Klein 1's. Klein 2's landlady claims, "I never saw much of him," but saw enough of to recognize Klein 1. "I'm not YOUR Mr. Klein," Klein 1 insists. "I thought you were him," she says. "Same height, same hair, just as slim. The same look." 

Both Kleins own a copy of Moby Dick. In the only photograph of Klein 2, his face is hidden. When Klein 1 takes it to a developer, the man calls the hidden face "your face" to Klein 1. Is it a plot to incriminate Klein 1 because he takes advantage of Jews who need money? The film never arrives at an explanation. 

It is Klein's own obsession with the other Robert Klein, presuming he exists, that brings destruction down on him. Even with the proof he needs to clear himself, he pursues his Jewish "double" all the way to a train platform where Jews are being called by name to board freight cars bound for the camps. When Klein hears his name called, and his double fails to step forward, he stoically boards the train himself. At that point, where the film turns completely soupy, Klein perhaps becomes a symbol rather than a man or even a Jew. But a symbol of what? France's war guilt? Its acquiescence to Nazism? Its collaboration in the destruction of the Jews? The only sensible conclusion to make, to which the script offers numerous clues, is that there is only one Robert Klein - that the black market art dealer whose family has been French and Catholic since Louis XIV and the Jew who rented the apartment in Pigalle are one and the same person. 

M. Klein is one of a surprising number of works made by non-Jews that is fixated on the Holocaust. Despite the somewhat loaded seriousness of some of these works, mere reference to subject is regarded by many as some kind of stamp of authenticity. Even the loathsome X-Men movies feature a character ("Magneto") who is a survivor of the death camps. The fascination of non-Jews with the subject of Jewishness was satirized by Cynthia Ozick in her short story "Levitation." In his essay "The Imaginary Jew," Adam Kirsch examined the problem. He begins with a brief synopsis of Cynthia Ozick's short story:

". . . first published in 1976, [it] deals with a pair of married writers - the husband Jewish, the wife Christian - who throw a party for their literary friends. . . . the star attraction turns out to be a professor who is a Holocaust survivor. The Jewish guests all congregate in the living room to hear him relate the horrors he lived through. Then, in a moment poised between satire and magical realism, the room full of Jews begins to float into the air, leaving the Gentile host behind."  

For Kirsch, many non-Jewish writers and intellectuals express feelings of inadequacy before the overpowering magnitude of Jewish suffering and tend to overcompensate in various ways but only end up invalidating themselves and their work. Kirsch claims that "The Holocaust, in this sardonic fable, is an obsession and a badge of authenticity that the Jews, despite themselves, hold over the non-Jews; Jewishness and Jewish suffering become a kind of club to which outsiders would not necessarily want to belong, except for the nagging realization that they never can."

In another essay, Kirsch wrote:

" . . . people do not have to be Nazis, or anti-Semites, in order to slaughter their neighbors. Yet nobody looks into his heart and sees an Eichmann lurking there. And this inability to match up our self-knowledge with our historical knowledge is the most disconcerting thing of all. Are we genuinely different from those millions of people, in the past and in other places, who did and do engage in mass murder?" ("Can You Learn Anything From a Void?")

M. Klein examines this very question. The titular hero of the film is driven by an earnest desire to clear his name as well as to discover the lengths to which the "authorities" will go to exterminate his Jewish namesake.  

Joseph Losey, the director of M. Klein, is himself something of an enigma. One could argue that a man who was accused of being "Un-American" (whatever that means), blacklisted, exiled, working clandestinely for awhile - could speak with some authority for a case like Robert Klein's. But what Losey did was refuse to name names to an illegal government committee. The circumstances of his livelihood were changed radically, but his life was never at risk. 

There was one member of the crew of M. Klein who could attest to the difference between risking one's career in film for a principle and risking one's life for an accident of birth. The lovely decor of M. Klein was created by Alexander Trauner, who was a Jew and who had worked clandestinely in France during the Occupation. He wasn't, like Losey (or Robert Klein) denounced and wrongly accused. He faced the same fate as every other Jew in France, but he managed to evade it. Now that would make for a good film. 

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