Kafka (1991)

The basic idea sounds quite promising.

Steven Soderbergh made a strange thriller movie revolving around the legendary writer Franz Kafka, which stars Jeremy Irons, with Ian Holm as the sinister Dr. Murnau, Armin Mueller-Stahl as a policeman, and Alec Guinness in one of his final roles.

Add to this plenty of dreamy black and white cinematography, some truly beautiful locations in Prague, and a web of sinister events that seem to be ensnaring our hero.

So what exactly went wrong?

The problem is that I’m not sure it actually went wrong.   This is a cool and elegant film which seems to be doing exactly what Soderbergh wants it to do.  Perhaps the problem is that it is too cool and dispassionate:  with Kafka we expect existential dread, and instead, we seem to have ended up with existential unease.  Perhaps it is that Jeremy Irons from the very start is too perturbed, too nervous, too fearful of the ordinary events around him and as a result only seems mildly disturbed when he has to deal with the sinister disappearance of a…

Friend?  that’s too strong a word.  “Work colleague”, perhaps…

Nor, for that matter, does anything that follows evince much stronger reactions, whether it is the dangerous revolutionaries, the sinister Castle no one returns from once they’ve been summoned, nor any of the other plot twists in a complex mystery story that ultimately soars into bizarre, mad scientist territory.

There is an absolutely beautifully staged moment (and I have to say, this is a beautifully made film) when Kafka enters the Castle, and the film subtly shifts from black and white to color (and before the digital revolution made such a transition easy!).  And you have to admit the projected images of first, a giant brain, and then a monstrous eye staring at Kafka as he crosses a glass dome, are startling and eerily effective.  However, this sequence seems to stray into Terry Gilliam territory, with the same sort of mindless bureaucracy, casual cruelty and utter absurdity found in Brazil (and, in fact, the bungling henchmen who are always squabbling with each other remind me an awful lot of Terry’s ruthlessly incompetent Air Conditioning repairmen).

I have to give Soderbergh a lot of credit, though:  here we have a director who started out as an Indie darling and successfully carved out a career making big Hollywood blockbusters — but who took the time out to make a few eccentric and somewhat risky films along the way, like Schizopolis, Bubble, Solaris, and, of course this one.  He has also given even his big films a distinctive, non-commercial style that focuses on his cast, and not on the big set pieces.

You just don’t see outside of the Indie world these days.

Kafka is not a particularly bad film.  It just never manages to be what it needed to be — and, let’s face it, never gives us any reason to start asking whether what we are seeing is all in Kafka’s mind — a question that is at the heart of the persecution, oppression and paranoia in all of Kafka’s work.

Mind you, no one else who’s tried to adapt Kafka seems to have done much better:  even Orson Welles never tried to put that subjective uncertainty into his version of The Trial.

But, despite its flaws and despite its failure to reach the sense of dread it should have achieved. Kafka is still worth seeing for those who appreciate more artistic films — and for those who are fans of Steven Soderbergh.

Or Jeremy Irons.  Or Alec Guinness.

Or of Franz Kafka, himself.


And check out our new Feature:

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!

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