Looking to the past as today’s guide helps people understand and recognize the present under its camouflage, for what it really is. An example in point is Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein, which he shot in France in 1976.
Prompted by a review in the September 9, 2019 New Yorker, I made sure to attend what turned out to be its last screening at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. (It screened earlier in New York).
Briefly the plot outline features an indifferent, ultra manicured Alain Delon who plays an art dealer happy to take advantage of anyone selling artwork, especially those Jews, fleeing 1942 German-occupied France, fearing for their lives. The arrogance with which he’s shown throwing 300 Louis d’ors at his Jewish client feels like a slap in the audience’s face.
But disaster awaits Klein when a Jewish newspaper is slipped under his door. He discovers that, if he wants to cancel his subscription, he will need to go to the collaborationist Prefecture de Police. And so doing, he becomes the author of his own destruction: a “person of interest.” His wheelchair bound father (played by a stellar Louis Seigner) assures him “We’ve been French and Catholic since Louis the XVI!” but Klein’s true roots remain remain amorphous. He discovers that Paris holds another Robert Klein, this one probably a member of the French Resistance. His discovery is the seed of a new obsession. To rid himself of his shadow he must discover the true identity of the other Robert Klein.
Here the film takes a decidedly noirish turn, a signature of Losey’s story telling art, but in my view, it is quite enough to observe routine arrests of Jews as the unaffected population of Paris carries on its daily rounds of cafes, race courses, promenades, the opera, and so forth while in the background we see scenes where arrests, and round ups are plotted by men in suits on a wall-sized enlargement of the city, and the Gestapo’s sinister Citroens and antiquated buses go about their deadly work.
|Trapped in the Vel D'Hiver|
But it is the scene of their final destination where Klein is trapped alongside the original Jewish client he treated with such contempt that speaks loudest: the “Vel d’Hiver." Throughout my years-long friendships with Parisian Holocaust survivors, the Vel d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome) features prominently in their stories of survival, but I had yet to see the actual scene: rivers of humanity herded behind bars, children separated from their mothers. The Right! Left! of the Final Solution.
Never known for anything other than its temporizing and camouflaging views, for once the New Yorker does not disappoint. Writes reviewer, Anthony Lane: “How blessed we are to live in a decent and democratic age where such things could not possibly occur.”
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