Joseph Losey fascinates me, from his early masterpiece The Boy with Green Hair (1948) to his work with Harold Pinter in the 60s on adaptations like The Servant (1963) to his slumming with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Boom!, his career was all over the place. Not to mention the fact he was blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare 50s and as a result had to emigrate to England to keep making films. While reading around before this post, I was rather shocked that Losey’s later films were pretty much panned all told, especially after seeing Monsieur Klein, which in my mind is a masterpiece. So when Don Callahan writes that Monsieur Klein “is a laborious tale of the French Occupation told at a funereal pace,” I figured a Summer of Love post was in order. While I’ll grant Callahan the film is slow, I can’t help but think it’s deliberately so, especially given that the entire film is about the metamorphosis of a gentile into a Jew during the Nazi occupation of France—framing the haunting politics of identity as simultaneously abstract and physical. And this is brought home immediately in the film through one of the most terrifyingly abject opening scenes in cinema, wherein a doctor is physically examining a woman as a vet would a horse to determine whether or not she is a Jew. A scene that hearkens back to the Samuel George Morton school of racial phrenology, and all the more poignant and update given the setting of Nazi occupied Paris.
The violence and sheer disregard for humanity that permeates this scene makes it one of the most frightening I’ve ever seen—and for the last year or so I haven’t been able to shake it. This opening scene of medically diagnosing racial/ethnic identities, a practice which in turn carries devastating persoanal and social consequences, is immediately followed by our introduction to the protagonist Mr. Klein (payed brilliantly by Alain Delon). Klein is an opportunist who buys art from various Jewish families at cut rate prices given their predicament. And the very thing that gives him the power to do this—his tried and true Frenchness—is exactly what is methodically taken away from him throughout the film. His metamorphosis into the other Mr. Klein, a Jew being hunted by the Nazis, is both subtle and haunting. But I think what really blew me away about this film was how both identity and self becomes inextricably caught up in socio-political struggle for power, and watching this process completely strip Klein of any sense of security and privilege takes a radical departure from how most films, novels, histories, etc. have treated the Holocaust. The viewer in many ways becomes caught up in the metamorphosis and much like Kafka novel cannot truly understand the forces working against him. It becomes abstractly and absurdly Biblical. And what makes Losey a master of the highest order in my mind is that he was able to achieve one of the greatest feats of film in the 20th century (with all due respect to Orson Welles) he brought the Kafka themes and aesthetic to film like no one else has to date (granted with the help of Italian screenwriter Franco Solina). What’s more, Losely didn’t simply try and remake Kafka, but rather riffs and intelligently updates Kafka’s writings that in so many ways pre-sage the humanistic void that emerges as a result of the Holocaust, and Losey seems to return to Kafka’s vision to try and deal with that—no matter how impossible it is. The Kafka connection hit me less than twenty minutes into the film while watching the following scene, wherein Klein is searching for his Jewish dobbelgänger, whose presence and similarity to him are bringing him unwelcome attention by the authorities.
Amazing, the sense of distrust, paranoia, perceived guilt, and increasing self doubt are the hallmarks of the best of Kafka’s dreamlike world, and the best of Kafka (maybe save Faulkner) is the best of literature in the 20th century. And to witness a film like Monsieur Klein capture even a bit of that on film in the most convincing and uncontrived of ways generally panned or lazily acknowledged by critics of the day seems a shame. So here’s a little love for Losey’s ignored masterpiece, without question one of the best film discoveries I stumbled across in the past decade, and one that will not let you forget it anytime soon.