Mister Freedom: An Interview with William Klein
by Jared Rapfogel
Though he made films with great regularity for a full four decades, characterizing William Klein’s position in the cinematic firmament is a tricky endeavor, thanks partly to the unusual paths his life has taken, and partly to his own creative restlessness and adventurousness. Something of a prodigy during his childhood in New York, Klein began visiting the Museum of Modern Art and studying at City College as a teenager, found himself stationed in Germany and France during the war at the age of twenty, and shortly thereafter took advantage of the Franco-American Friendship Program to enroll at the Sorbonne, where he studied with Fernand Léger. An encounter with Alexander Liberman, the accomplished painter/sculptor who was also the art director of Vogue, led to the project which (after a long search for a sympathetic publisher) would eventually become his hugely influential book, New York (Life is Good and Good for You in New York), as well as to an unexpected sideline as a fashion photographer for Vogue. In the midst of this varied activity, Klein turned his attention to filmmaking, producing a beautiful, impressionistic portrait of Times Square at night (Broadway by Light, 1958), inaugurating yet another parallel career that would ultimately produce some twenty short and feature-length films.
Much better known as a photographer than a filmmaker, Klein has resisted categorization from the very beginning—he studied painting and sculpture before gaining fame for his street photography, whose unapologetically raw, muscular, expressionistic style shocked contemporary tastes. His fashion photography saw him exploring another side of his personality—one drawn to graphic design and stylization—that he couldn’t express fully through his street photography, a dynamic mirrored in his films, which have alternated between documentaries and wildly exaggerated, satiric fictions. All of Klein’s films reflect his deeply political, profoundly independent-minded sensibility, but they have done so in unmistakably diverse ways.
Cineaste spoke with Klein at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, where he was being honored, appropriately, with both a photographic exhibition and an extensive retrospective of his film work. A big, outsized figure—with his great frame and his unruly shock of hair—Klein was an overwhelming presence. His festival appearances (along with a few rumors) had suggested that he could be difficult—prickly, impatient, and unforgiving—but during the interview he proved anything but. Making himself comfortable in the plush lobby of the grand Electra Palace Hotel, he turned out to be friendly, funny, extremely generous with his time, and more than willing to discuss his life and work. True to form, he was frank, uncensored, alert, and curious, interrupting the interview at regular intervals to chat with passing acquaintances and admirers (especially female ones), tell stories about other passers-by (such as Nico Papatakis, legendary owner of the Parisian nightclub La Rose Rouge, friend and associate of Jean Genet, husband of Anouk Aimée, and boyfriend of the Velvet Underground’s Nico), gripe about how busy the festival organizers were keeping him, and ask some questions of his own (regarding the selection of films for the retrospective, the nature of the audience reaction, the history of Cineaste, and, his interest obviously piqued by his fellow Thessaloniki honoree, the degree of success John Sayles has enjoyed throughout his largely self-financed career). Among Klein’s many talents, one of the most impressive has proven to be his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, making for an interview that encompassed not only his own artistic pursuits and developments, but many of postwar America and Europe’s most crucial movements and events.
To Read the Interview