What Cornelius Gurlitt Could Have Learned From Monsieur Robert Klein

How a 1976 Movie Echoes in a Tale of Nazi-Looted Art in Munich

The Talented Monsieur Delon: Alain Delon played the titular role in Joseph Losey’s 1976 film, ‘Monsieur Klein.’
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The Talented Monsieur Delon: Alain Delon played the titular role in Joseph Losey’s 1976 film, ‘Monsieur Klein.’

By Karen Loew

Published December 06, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
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“Monsieur Klein” is filmed in colors as lurid as a Kirchner painting. Delon’s suaveness no doubt elevates the film, but it’s his acting that matters, as acute and ambiguous by turns as the movie itself. Losey and his writer, Franco Solinas (who also wrote “The Battle of Algiers”), intend to swing between moments of fog and sharp daylight, and only afterward does one realize that the viewing experience was surreal. As you watch, it feels hyperreal.

When Klein enters Florence’s glowing chateau in the country, the shaky camera perspective is from Klein’s own eyes — the vision of two Kleins merged into one. He is led by a servant toward the drawing room, where the family is listening to musicians play. As Klein’s gaze travels over the long hallway leading in, we see walls covered in pink satin wallpaper and sprinkled with lush paintings in frames; but the walls are also marked by darker squares, with grime lining each perimeter: the shadows left when wall hangings are removed and unfaded fabric is revealed. So, has this haute bourgeois family been divesting itself of art? It looks that way. But there is no further hint of Jewish identity beyond this unsettling image.

The film’s very first scene is as harsh as the Florence sequence is dreamy. A male doctor pushes and prods a middle-aged woman standing naked in a vast room. He is performing an examination, and announcing his assessments to a nurse taking notes behind a desk: “Prognathous jaw typical of non-European races. Narrow forehead. Low hairline… swarthy skin. Naturally large and flaccid hips.” He cannot say definitively that she is Jewish, perhaps Armenian or Arab. For this, the woman has to pay 15 francs. Some people choose to undergo this demeaning experience in the hope of receiving a clean ethnic bill, to put them beyond suspicion of Jewishness.

In “Monsieur Klein,” the moments of sensuous distraction only cast the bloodlust of the Nazi project into sharper relief. No amount of detachment is protection enough, and the Catholic Klein ends up with nothing. Eventually his art-filled home is emptied to the walls, in a ritual looting performed on many Jews in Paris at the time. Gurlitt was recently stripped of his artworks by the authorities, some 70 years after the very crimes of the Nazis that allegedly led to his possessing the art.

Some viewers consider “Monsieur Klein” film noir, and its shadowy visions and sinister characters could put it in that category. But the film lacks noir’s characteristic cynicism. The story is simply sad — or even tragic, ending with mass murder. Gurlitt’s story is sad, too. Both men are victims.

As the police clear out Klein’s apartment, an officer says to his friend: “Try to make him understand it’s not personal. I’m not doing this for fun. It’s the law.” Klein answers: “I’m not questioning the law. It doesn’t concern me.” But he protests: “I refuse to pay for another man! This has nothing to do with me!” Only at the last moment does he realize it has everything to do with him.

Now that priceless works by the likes of Chagall and Matisse have been found, society experiences the violence, the loss and the injustice afresh. We are forced to remember, once again, that it has everything to do with us.

Karen Loew is a writer in New York.

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