The thing is, although the film revolves around the Holocaust, it never really talks about it. Hitler is never mentioned, and German soldiers are seen only very briefly. In the film’s opening sequence, a naked and obviously frightened woman is undergoing a humiliating physical exam. The doctor spends a lot of time examining her face, and finally comes to the conclusion that the woman shares some common features with the “Semite” race. This is masterful, as it quietly establishes that the Jews are starting to be rounded up – with the co-operation of the French.
Mr. Klein (Alain Delon) is first introduced to us off-camera as a gentleman comes to his door to sell a painting. Again, Losey feeds us information in an indirect way, as we listen to the conversation. It’s pretty easy to gather that the man is Jewish, and needs raise some money quickly. Klein knows this, and coldly lowballs the man on price. On his way out, the man says derisively that Klein is taking advantage of people, and Klein retorts that “Sometimes, I don’t even want to buy.”
A pivotal moment ends this small exchange, as Klein sees a small Jewish newspaper on his doorstep, and tells the man that he’s dropped it. The man reaches into his jacket and pulls out his own copy.
Klein makes a trip to the offices of the magazine to try to stop delivery to his address, and this is again a beautifully done example of how we are given information by characters who-tap dance around what they really want to say. Watch Delon’s face when he is told that the magazine’s subscription list is in the hands of the Prefecture of Police. This is the first small crack we see in Klein’s cool façade. There’s also a terrific little exchange as the magazine manager tells Klein that someone may have given him a gift subscription.
“No one would play such a joke on me”
“Do you think we are the subject of jokes?”
The trip to the magazine tells him, however, that there is another man with the same name, and a visit to the man’s address turns up an abandoned apartment and a blurry photograph of the other Klein on a motorcycle.
One day, a love letter arrives that is intended for the other Klein, and it leads Delon to a rich family on the country who are confidantes of the other Klein. As Klein is led into the house, we see that some of their paintings have been taken down off the wall. This isn’t pursued, but it raises the possibility that Klein may have profited from some of their artwork, as well. It also suggests that the other Klein is Jewish. The woman of the house (Jeanne Moreau) comes to Klein at night to retrieve her letter – She is having an affair with the other Klein, and in fact goes out in the middle of the night to meet a man on a motorcycle.
The French police ask for birth certificates of Klein’s grandparents, and he sends his lawyer Pierre for them. At this point in the proceedings, he might be well advised to get out of town, but he is obsessed with finding the other man, and gives the impression that he doesn’t really believe that anything bad is going to happen to him.
The adjective Kafka-esque is often used to describe this film, and it’s an apt description. The French police are investigating Klein, and the other Klein is using him as a decoy. The man on the motorcycle is likely the other Klein, and there’s another instance where Delon is in the same bar with his man, and misses him. He never does actually see the guy. A search for a woman in the photo is maddening; as he is told her name is Isabelle, then Cathy, and then finally, Francoise.
Finally, he comes to the conclusion that he has to get away, and there is a delicious irony in a scene where his lawyer asks about the value of his stuff.
“About 10 million”
“How about 7 or 8?”
When the opening credits roll on this film, they are over a painting – A painting of a vulture pierced by an arrow. This same painting is sold at an auction later in the film, with Klein in attendance. We wonder if he senses the parallels to his own life. He has made money off desperate Jews, and in so doing, given them the means to escape. When his time comes, after he has been rounded up and loaded on a train bound for Germany, we again hear his narration from the opening meeting with the old Jewish gentleman selling his painting. Then the doors slide shut, and the vulture is carried away.