Until recently, Cornelius Gurlitt, 80, possessed 1,280 pieces of art — some already known to be major works — which he kept wrapped and stored in his apartment in Munich. He enjoyed the cache, but only furtively; the man was in hiding alongside his art. Now that he’s been flushed out and interviewed, Gurlitt comes across as a childish figure stunted by a lifelong secret: He held the remains of the business of his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of several designated brokers of “degenerate art” stolen from Jews by the Nazi regime. Cornelius Gurlitt is solitary and celibate; those pictures are his true love.
The news of Gurlitt’s trove, which came to light in early November, brings to mind the 1976 film “Monsieur Klein,” by the American director Joseph Losey. The fictional Robert Klein is an art dealer in Paris in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation. At first blush he could not be more different from Gurlitt: virile where Gurlitt is virginal, decadent where he is hermitic. And Klein is an art seller turning objects into money, whereas Gurlitt is a collector protecting what he adores. Yet they both function in the world of art adrift, tainted and set floating by Nazi domination. As stunning a realization of the Nazi horror as any of the best films on the period, “Monsieur Klein” is an under-acknowledged gem and a rare cinematic treatment of the massive theft (or forced sale) of Jewish-owned art that continues to reverberate across the decades.
Robert Klein, played by French superstar Alain Delon in his prime, is a playboy conducting life and work from a sumptuous apartment bedecked with rich sculptures, paintings and textiles, the spoils of his trade. In his first scene, he takes leave of his mistress to transact business in a golden dressing gown. She rouses herself from bed, overhears the conversation and lolls, in a negligee, around the spacious marble bathroom, waiting for Klein to reappear. “For me, it’s just a job,” he tells the Jewish man who has come to sell an oil painting that has been passed down in his family for generations. The man needs money to flee the country; he is unhappy that Klein will offer him only half the asking price. “Recently I’ve seen many clients like you, urgently needing to sell,” Klein explains. “And I assure you it’s most unpleasant for me. Embarrassing. Very often I’d rather not buy.”
But events come to disturb Klein’s exquisite detachment. Klein, a Catholic, disapproves of the nasty business of Jewish persecution, yet insists, “This has nothing to do with me.” Yet it does, because a Jewish newspaper was delivered to his door. It seems that another Robert Klein in Paris, who is Jewish, has decided to park his troublesome identity at Klein’s address. Just as for the real-life Gurlitt, who wanted only to live out his days with his art, the rest of the world is finally rushing in.
Klein’s search for his doppelganger begins: a trip through a dream world of sensuality, fear, bewilderment and discovery. By way of an elaborate setup by the other Robert, Klein meets a redheaded ingénue, Florence (played by Jeanne Moreau), to mirror the married redhead with whom he’s already involved. She muses over what animal to compare him to, and comes up with a bird of prey — not falcon, as Klein flirts, but vulture. But perhaps he is not an eater of corpses, a collaborator, or a parasite. After all, he is giving charity to Jews by buying things he does not want. Gurlitt, too, maintains that his father performed a good deed by keeping art confiscated by the Nazis so that it could be found again one day. Today.