A middle-aged woman is being examined by a man who could be a doctor, or a vet. She is standing, naked, though it is mainly her skull that receives attention. Her nose is measured with a specially designed instrument, the shape of her jaw, the heaviness of her lower lip, the characteristics of her gums, the type of her body hair, the shape of her hips, and finally the fact that she has flat feet, all are recorded with 'scientific' precision by an assistant who notes down the 'doctor"s comments.
The woman's face is pink from the rough explorations of the doctor's fingers, and it has a fixed look of indignation. The final item in her medical report-sheet is the doctor's comment. "Attitude during examination: non-Aryan". The woman is told that she will learn the results of the examination – "from the police".
Two well-dressed middle class men haggle over the price of an old painting. The seller protests: the price offered is ridiculous! But still he sells, at the price offered. He says: "It's easy, isn't it, when they have to sell".
A man is in trouble with the police. His property has been seized. He has already forfeited civil rights and the right to such things as using a public lavatory. His liberty is at risk, perhaps his life. To save himself, he searches desperately for information about one of his grandparents. He must prove they did not have 'Jewish blood'.
For this is German-occupied Paris, early in 1942.
How the callous speculator who buys cheap from fugitive Jews is transformed into someone whose life depends on what a grandparent's religion may have been, is the subiect of Joseph Losey's film, "Mr Klein".
Mr Klein preys on French citizens who find themselves suddenly subject to the anti-Semitic racial laws of Nazi Germany. He is a bourgeois, secure within the rules of the system, rules he knows how to manipulate. Mr Klein operates strictly according to the market, and he does not scruple to take into account the market effect of official anti-Semitism in occupied France.
He appears not to have thought about the subject overmuch. Tactful and discreet, he nevertheless lets himself speak of the idea that he might be a Jew as "a joke". In the office of a Jewish publication whose subscription list has to be registered with the police. He – Klein – is uninvolved. So he will protest throughout.
But he is only uninvolved so long as he is allowed to be uninvolved, so long as he is accepted as "French and Catholic". What if the rules of the game demand that he prove that one of his grandparents was not Jewish?
One day he finds that he is on the subscribers' list ot a newsletter for French Jews. It is mistaken identity: mysterious, perhaps malicious. It seems there is another Mr Klein. He sets out to trace the potentialy very dangerous misunderstanding to what he sees as its source: he seeks the other Mr Klein. Gradualy the search becomes an obsession.
He checks with the police – who know the other Mr Klein. They are suspicious. What of his own ancestry, He has some difficulty there. For a while it seems as if he has blown the whistle on himself!
He finds himself treated like a Jew. He must register with the police. He is forbidden the public parks and public transport. He is devoured by his 'friends'. For now he is the one who "must sell"
His father splutters that the family has been "French and Catholic" since Louis XIV (who forcibly 'converted' Protestants and others to Catholicism). Proving it is a problem that remains unsolved until Mr Klein is being herded into a German–bound cattle truck. And by then the obsessive search for his namesake makes Klein ehoose to go into the deportation train which is taking French Jews to Germany.
He believes he will return.
The film uses the technique of fragmenting the narrative into a series of explorations, perceptions, responses. With this style the difficulty of reintegrating and correlating the scenes is off-putting, and sometimes it is scarcely worth the effort. Here it is very appropriate, as the film dances back and forth between the parallel worlds of the two Mr Kleins until they meet. For the parallel worlds do converge: in the cattle truck.
Mr Klein acts and reacts as though he were not living in a political society. Everything is "personal". Self-centred and self-absorbed, it is as if he has become fascinated by his own reflection, or inversion, the other Mr Klein.
Yet he is not in a social, nor a political, void. The occupation forces are visible. Klein is prepared to exploit anti-Semitism, then official racism singles him out as victim. (But that is "a mistake") He encounters a political organisation amongst workers in a munitions factory. He visits a morgue to examine the remains of anti-German Resistance fighters, blown up by their own bomb. Clearly we are in France as the Communist Party starts to organise the Resistance.
But none of this has power to involve Mr Klein. It is either "a mistake" or a personal score to settle, or both. His motive for action never rises above the personal, even when it becomes suicidal self-obsession.
Mr Klein never reacts politicaly. As he is being reclassified as sub-human, Mr Klein is told, "It's not personal, it's the law". In turn he tells them it is a mistake. The laws on race have no "concern" with him. The point seems to be that though it drives him underground, he never learns to let it concern him except in a directly personal and ultimately petty way.
For what at the end does he want with the other Mr Klein? If he could draw social and political conclusions from what has happened to him, then meeting Mr Klein no. 2 would, by now, be irrelevant. He would have seen his own place in the jigsaw. Because he hasn't, Klein 2 becomes central to him. He seeks Klein 2, who is a man in a different dimension.
The dimension of political, not purely personal, response. The picture we piece together is of a man connected with the CPF and with military resistance to the Germans. (One of the clearest statements we have about him, from one who might know, is that he is an atheist). A sheet of music, mysterious to Klein, translates at the finger tips of someone else into "The Internationale". She doesn't recognise it, and plays it in a room full of policemen. The world paralleling Klein and intruding on it is the world first of the Jews and then of the French workers' movement.
But, centred on himself, Klein makes contact with political society only when it picks on him. For it to be otherwise he would have to understand that it does "concern" him. In fact it dominates everything that happens to him.
The interplay of the identities of the two Mr Klein's, the unreasonable and arbitrary fixing on one of the identity of the other, show very forcefully what racism is: its arbitrariness, its opposition to the very idea of treating human beings as persons who exist in their own right, its substitution of zoology, backed up by quack science, for human relations and categories. For nothing that Mr Klein is or has done, is at issue. He is declared human or sub-human according to considerations about his ancestors. It is only momentarily surprising that this victim of mistaken identity should suddenly find himself having to answer for his grandparents too.
The choice between isolated and impotent individualism, incapable of acting on society, on the one hand and political activity which can transform it, on the other, are em-bodied In the two Mr Kleins.
Losey's style is one of subjectivism and ambiguity. Perhaps because of that (and despite one scene, inexplicable on this interpretation, in which one Mr Klein's dog recognises the other Mr Klein), "Mr Klein" is one of the most powerful portrayals of what racism is that I have ever seen.
Workers' Action 61, June 23 1977