If our personal film archives say a lot about us, here is a film that says a lot about me: “Mr. Klein”, produced in 1976 by Joseph Losey, with Alain Delon.
Although born in an ancestral Catholic environment, my obsession with the Jewish fate during the Second World War marked my entire teenage life and continued into my adult life.
And for good reason: I saw Auschwitz at 11, at a time when the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen.
At that time, there was not a lot of information available to the masses. The Internet did not exist, and the Iron Curtain – which could only be crossed with a specific authorization and at a specific time at checkpoints surrounded by watchtowers – obscured from the Western world a view of the festering wounds symbolized by Auschwitz on the cartography of humanity. In addition, France was filled with denial and guilt over its role in the Jewish genocide and would not truly recognize its responsibility until 1995.
I saw Auschwitz at 11, leaving my childhood and innocence there. My foray into the adult world took place facing a gloomy portal, before this banner spread over the entrance of the camp beclouded with the phrase, “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work makes you free”. I was the only one in the family who had studied German, and therefore the only one to instantly understand the significance of the inscription. I was struck by the deceiptful, deadly and excruciating disdain of the misrepresentative reference.
Being the only child to wander like a soul in pain in this deserted death camp, I remained horrified by the terrible symbolism of what the mountains of suitcases, glasses or shoes piled up in immense and cold rooms represented.
It was all about a death process that started long before the body died. The death of souls, of identities was only the first step in a process of dehumanization which ended in the full horror of the industrialized death of bodies. The cruelty I sensed on that day was deeply shocking, because, until then, I did not know that one could kill in such a dehumanized and dehumanizing way.
I know that I brought back from Auschwitz ghosts and immense questions about human nature. Over the years, I devoured everything that could be read, heard or viewed on the subject, in a vain attempt to understand how ordinary people could actively participate in a genocide organized in a cold, thoughtful and industrialized manner.
Reading the minutes of the Nuremberg trials may have led me to law, but reading Hannah Arendt or studying the experiences of Stanley Milgram led me to sociology, political psychology and human psyche.
And if our personal film library does say a lot about us, “Mr. Klein” does say a lot about me and about my own human psyche. Auschwitz, in all its horror, has strangely become the pivotal point of my appreciation of human beings whom I get to know, that I classify as Bright, Dark or Gray.
The Grays are, according to my personal appreciation, people without true opinions, without anchored values and who would join the sad cohort of the Dark ones in difficult times or in a position of power. The Grays, with their wavering human psyche, are those who could have been collaborators in past times.
The human psyche is very much in question in this film that marked me so much: “Mr. Klein”.
Robert Klein – played by Alain Delon – is living a cozy life in wartime in occupied Paris in 1942. Far from Auschwitz, he is nevertheless perfectly dehumanized and dehumanizing as he seems dead, without as much as a spark of life in his eyes. For an occupation, he buys works of art at low prices from Jews in great difficulty in an occupied Paris.
One day, on his doorstep, Klein discovers a copy of ‘Jewish Information’, a subscription newspaper dedicated to the Jewish population, and quickly understands that there is another Robert Klein, who is Jewish because he is subscribed, and resistant moreover.
Fearing to be mistaken, he contacts the French authorities so as not to be confused with this other Robert Klein, but his insistence on proving his non-Jewishness only aroused suspicion about his case. He goes to Alsace to visit his father and obtain family certificates proving that he is Catholic. At the same time, he is trying to find his namesake, which is only a shadow that keeps fleeing through Paris.
In a double dash, he is in search of himself and the other Klein, and the Kafkaesque and nightmarish atmosphere sometimes leaves doubts about whether there are really two Robert Kleins.
During the Vel d’Hiv roundup, a shameful episode in 20th century French history during which French police officers took 13,000 Jewish Parisians to jail in the winter velodrome – Robert Klein, the opportunist, is arrested. In this immense velodrome, where these 13,000 Jewish people are held waiting to be deported, he hears his name spoken to the loudspeaker and he sees the other Robert Klein from afar presenting himself to the authorities in order to enter the train of death.
And although he finally has in hand the papers proving his non-Jewishness, the opportunist that he is no longer rushes towards his namesake in order to join him, and knowingly throws himself on the death train. The will to discover this other Robert Klein will ultimately have been stronger than his opportunistic instinct and the two Klein will be linked to death. Strangely, even if their fate is sealed, Klein the opportunist will have found a part of humanity and by this fact, will have returned a part of humanity to his namesake.
The Other, or this other myself.
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