Kafkaesque is a word that is overused these days, but sometimes the most obvious word is also the most fitting. Mr Klein, Joseph Losey’s surreal tale of mistaken identity – set in Vichy controlled France during World War II – wears the debt it owes Franz Kafka on its sleeve. Partly based on Losey’s own experiences as a blacklisted director, the film is infused with a palpable sense of paranoia and feels just as relevant today, as it did upon release.
The always beautiful Alain Delon is excellent as the titular character – a languid, unprincipled art dealer who profits from Jewish collectors fleeing the country. He purchases works of art for a price well below what they are worth, safe in the knowledge that they can’t afford to refuse. After one such deal, he notices a Jewish newspaper on his doorstep, addressed to him, or rather a Jewish man with the same name. While investigating this other Mr Klein in an attempt to disassociate himself from this other Mr Klein, he inadvertently draws the attention of the police, who begin taking a closer look at his personal life.
Mr Klein often feels like a companion piece to Jean Pierre Melville‘s The Army Of Shadows, but while that film focuses on the resistance, and those actively fighting against oppression, this is more concerned with the bureaucracy of the Vichy administration, and the difficulties of extricating yourself once they you were in the system – ironically it’s made apparent that if Klein hadn’t brought his predicament to the police in the first place they wouldn’t have given him a second thought. The cinematography is beautiful – the composition and use of lighting and shadow recalls Melville’s film as well as Bertolucci’s seminal The Conformist, with oppressive, tall buildings and claustrophobic alleyways.
Klein is very similar to Josef K, the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial, as the one sane man caught up in a labyrinthine bureaucracy, and Losey leans into the Kafkaesque nature of Vichy France constantly (One scene in the records office bears an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles adaptation of The Trial). But it also resembles more recent films, such as Michael Haneke‘s Cache, in the way an unseen antagonist thoroughly destroys someone’s life.
In the same way as Josef K, Mr Klein is often his own worst enemy. He is given several opportunities to escape France, but his arrogance and sheer bloody-mindedness make him refuse. As we become aware that his friends and acquaintances are slowly distancing themselves from him, he remains completely oblivious. Even in the film’s final haunting moments he seems certain he’ll be able to talk his way out of his situation, treating the ominous train he’s being herded onto as a minor inconvenience.
Delon is often derided for not being much of an actor, but this is a great rebuttal. Known primarily for his cool roles in Le Samourai, Rocco and His Brothers and Plein Soleil, here he sheds a great deal of his usual self-assuredness as the film goes on. He still retains a degree of coolness (He is Alain Delon after all) but for once he’s not in control, and the gradual change to his demeanour is subtle but evident – there are moments where he remains outwardly confident but this bluster doesn’t reach his eyes, where you can see the panic begin to set in, even if he refuses to acknowledge what’s happening to him.
While the plot is meandering and often feels a little unfocused, what’s more important is the foreboding atmosphere. Losey doesn’t dwell on the horrors of the Second World War, but as the net tightens around Klein, the atmosphere grows increasingly ominous, as we can infer where the story is heading. Kafka and the German occupation seem so ideally suited that it’s a wonder nobody thought to combine the two before. A beautifully shot, often surreal, always suspenseful thriller.
Introduction by Jean-Baptiste Thoret; Mr Klein Revisited by Michel Ciment; Interview with Henri Lanoe.