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.’
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

“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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.