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The Jewish Films of Michael Lonsdale

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Nathan Abrams celebrates the Jewish films of legendary French actor, Michael Lonsdale.

The French actor Michael Lonsdale, who has died, aged 89, may not have been Jewish, but he left behind some key films dealing with Jewish issues. Here are the top five.  

The Trial (1962)

The Trial was the attempt by legendary auteur Orson Welles to adpat the 1925 novel of the same name by the Jewish writer Franz Kafka. Anthony Perkins, who had previously appeared in Psycho, plays the bureaucrat Josef K who is accused of an unspecified crime. Lonsdale appears as The Priest. 

Mr. Klein (1976)

In Mr. Klein, directed by Joseph Losey, Lonsdale played a lawyer named Pierre. Set in Paris in early 1942, during the Nazi Occupation, it recounts the story of a French Catholic man named Robert Klein (Alain Delon) whose identity becomes confused with that of a Jewish man with the same name. As a result, he faces the same persecutions that Jews underwent in France at the time.  

Moonraker (1979)

To British audiences, this might be his most famous role. In the James Bond movie, Moonraker, he played the evil industrialist Hugo Drax. He planned to commit mass genocide by poisoning all human life on Earth so he can then repopulate the planet using genetically perfect young men and women. Bond describes his space station as a ‘flying stud farm’ providing the ‘seed for a “new master race”’. Anyone not measuring up to Drax’s standards of physical perfection was to be exterminated.  

Lonsdale explained in an interview: ‘But really, he is such a terrible character, a sort of Nazi. I mean, Drax is like Hitler. He wanted to destroy everybody and rain down a new order of very athletic, young people… He was mad completely.’ 

Munich (2005) 

In Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Lonsdale played Papa, the mysterious Resistance figure. An anarchist who sells information and weapons he supplies arms, safe houses and intelligence to Avner, the leader of the counter-terrorist assassination group sent by Mossad to retaliate against Black September for the Munich Olympics massacre. Papa is a shadowy figure who befriends Avner, treating him like a surrogate son. Yet, it is never clear if he is both helping and betraying Avner at the same time. 

Free Men / Les Hommes Libres (2011)

In German-occupied Paris in 1942, the rector of the Paris Mosque Si Kaddour Benghabrit (Lonsdale) saves the lies of north African Jews during the Holocaust by providing them with false certificates, as well as assisting Muslim Resistance agents. 

Michael Lonsdale, 1931-2020.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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