There’s something about Sunday evenings that often inspires me to watch a film about fascism or Nazism. No doubt the prospect of returning to the realities of capitalist labor relations (aka work) makes me seek solace in watching people in situations far, far worse. Or maybe the immersion in such environments simply prepares me emotionally for the frustrations and humiliations of the week ahead.
The damp, heavy, oppressive, perpetually cheerless dead of winter atmosphere of Mr. Klein encourages such a sinking into muddy pessimism. The texture may provide a facile analogy for a society with no future, but the film’s capacity to make us shiver also makes us seek some warm alternative, like the comforting embrace of sleep. Just as the movie refuses to moralize as it makes us complicit with the efforts of an unattractive character to prove he isn’t Jewish, so too I seek some temporary escape, to wrap myself in a blanket and hide under the covers, to make the world go away until I have to face Monday morning.
Robert Klein may be the least attractive protagonist ever to drive a narrative feature, cold, selfish, anti-Semitic, thoroughly indifferent to the world around him in the Paris of the Occupation. It is his very unattractiveness that is the film’s genius: Klein can be as repellent as he is, but we still identify with his worm-like efforts to shake off his mis-identification as another, Jewish Klein. His way of life—the tailored suits, the satin bath robe, the mistresses, the mishmash of art works and antiques —is too seductive for us to view its gradual withering away with insouciance. The cluttered elegance compensates for his venality, a colorful backdrop to his egotism. As that luxurious way of life is stripped away, we regret the loss of exquisite externals as much as Klein. That we know the consequences if he fails in his efforts to prove he is Aryan makes his situation that much more harrowing—and our identification with him grimly ironic. Too late does he confront the difference between complacency and security.
Which, of course, is the point of the film. This may be the movie that Joseph Losey was born to make. His ability to suggest the rotten under the veneer of perfection, his talent for revealing the crippled psyches of those who pretend to be masters of all they survey, his ability above all else to render decadence sexy makes him the ideal filmmaker to confront the twisted ambiguities of fascist style. That he combines those talents with a commensurate political sophistication prevents Mr. Klein from degenerating into an over-ripe wallow in lush surfaces. The seriousness of the theme lends the film a rigor sometimes lacking in his lesser work. His collaborations with Harold Pinter may be more famous. But this is the film for which Losey deserves to be remembered.