It sometimes feels as if the canon of Cinematic Classics has already been set in stone, as if there’s no major discoveries left to be found that haven’t already been exulted by cultural institutions like The Criterion Collection or The Sight & Sound Top 100 list. That’s why restorations of forgotten, discarded gems like Mr. Klein are so vital to modern cinephilia, keeping the hope alive for decades-delayed discoveries. Directed by HUAC-backlisted American ex-pat Joseph Losey in the grim, grimy days of the 1970s, Mr. Klein has been shoddily distributed in the decades since, to the point where it’s been effectively backlisted itself. Maybe some of its initial critical reluctance in France was due to its American filmmaker going exceptionally hard on targeting French authorities for cooperating with Nazis while under German occupation (still a fresh wound at the time of its initial release). Maybe the film was simply just considered not particularly great, just another vanity project for its tabloid-friendly leading man Alain Delon in the titular role; maybe its exceptional qualities only became apparent with time & distance away from Delon’s peak star wattage. Whatever the case, it’s a great work that deserves great respect, the exact kind of discarded gem that self-serious film nerds cream their jeans over when it’s rescued for the digital restoration treatment. Rialto Films isn’t only keeping Mr. Klein alive with this restoration; they’re also keeping alive the thrill of the hunt.
Delon stars as an unscrupulous art dealer who makes a fortune off the Holocaust’s slow intrusion into German-occupied France. As doomed Jewish citizens seek the road money necessary to escape Nazi rule, Mr. Klein lowballs them on the worth of their precious art collections, profiting off their terror. This unseemly business is disrupted when Klein is mistaken by French authorities to be Jewish himself, as he shares a name with a much less wealthy French citizen who’s on the path to be exported to a German concentration camp. Arrogantly convinced that his wealth & public stature will protect him, Klein decides to address this mix-up through official, administrative channels instead of fleeing France himself. His delusions that he can remain uninvolved in the plight of French Jews makes him more involved than ever. As he falls down a Kafkaesque bureaucracy rabbit hole in an attempt to clear his name, he effectively become both a Nazi and a Jew himself: hunting down the “real” Robert Klein to bring them to “justice” and being treated like a lousy criminal by the Nazi-complying French authorities because of an arbitrary criterion beyond his control. It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.
Where Mr. Klein might frustrate some plot-obsessed viewers is in its predictability, it more than makes up for it in eerie mood. Its Kafkaesque bureaucracy nightmare and fits of uncanny horror almost suggest that Klein’s plight will tip into supernatural fantasy at any moment, as if he has a genuine doppelgänger roaming the streets of Paris in wait of a violent showdown. Mostly, though, the film operates like a grimy 1970s throwback to the heyday of noir. Klein’s late-night investigations of shadowy figures, dangerous dames, and widespread political corruption recall a wide range of classic noir tropes, right down the trench coat & fedora of his costuming. By the very first scene, he already tips the archetype of the noir anti-hero into full-fledged villainy, as he’s introduced fleecing a devastated Jewish man while dressed in an obnoxious silk bathrobe in his luxurious apartment. His villainy only worsens as he pursues the “real” Robert Klein instead of fleeing France himself, something he’s easily equipped to do. What’s his ideal success story here? That he clears his own name by condemning a Jewish man to death in a concentration camp? Klein is convinced the French authorities will clear his name through proper channels in time, yet he only becomes guiltier in the eyes of the audience and in the eyes of the Nazis the more he fights his designation as a Jewish citizen. Like all great Twilight Zone plots, it’s the story of a morally defunct man getting his cosmically just deserts, with plenty of uncanny chills along the way. It just happens to be dressed up more like a spooky noir film than an outright horror.
I hope that this restoration of Mr. Klein rescues it from its relative obscurity to present it as one of the era’s great works. If nothing else, there are isolated images from the film that continue to haunt me the way all Great Cinema does: a Nazi phrenology exam, a mansion left empty by pilfered artwork, the world’s most horrific drag brunch, etc. Whether that critical reappraisal is imminent or not, just the chance to see it projected on the big screen with a totally unprepared audience at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival was enough of a wonder to justify Rialto Films’s restoration of this forgotten gem. Our modern-day audience was thrilled, chilled, and traumatized by the experience, which is just as validating as a proper entry in the Great Cinema canon.