Bleak and White

It takes a supremely perverted sense of humor allied to a well-meaning foolhardiness to conjure up something like Kafka. The new film, delivered in The Third Man thriller style, has the added cachet of being loosely based on the life of - and employing themes taken from works by - Franz Kafka. More topically, it's Steven Soderbergh's second effort after his greatly praised sex, lies, and videotape of 1989. Quite a lot has been reported recently about the history of the script for Kafka, written by Lem Dobbs when he was in his early twenties - how it apparently made the rounds in Hollywood for some years before being picked up and squashed like a bug by Soderbergh. As evidenced by the finished film, the script clearly meant to pay homage to Kafka's The Castle, The Trial, and "The Metamorphosis" (copiously referred to), works that certainly ignite a reader's mind with their potent mix of fantasy, mordant Jewish humor, pre-Orwellian political observation, and pre-Camusian alienation. No doubt Dobbs intended a Kafkaesque fable based more squarely on the writer's life - Franz Kafka on the stand, not the protagonist of The Trial, Joseph K.

For Kafka, of course, the two were one and the same. John Updike commented a few years ago on the Kafkaesque quandry, calling the writer a man "torn between an unmanageable `reality' and an impossibly ideal `literature.'" It seems to me that an attempt to draw a simple biographical portrait of Kafka would have been a terrible notion, however benign, but Soderbergh-Dobbs's solution makes me wonder if biography isn't better than butchery. The simple truth is that Franz Kafka, appropriately for someone who resided inside the imagination more than out of it, didn't live a sensationalistic day-by-day existence; his wasn't the kind of life upon which Hollywood movies have been made and sold - too little happened. And his work is hard to adapt without plunging head-on into the realm of Pythonesque parody (remember comedienne Elayne Boosler's roach-waitress in the restaurant Chez Kafka?). Even Orson Welles's 1962 The Trial, darkly conceived, arresting, and boldly cinematic, confirms this.

Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague to a German-speaking, middle-class Jewish family (including a distant haberdasher father whose approval Kafka sought his entire brief life and never attained). He didn't live alone until he was 33 years old, and didn't live with a woman (despite two engagements to Felice Bauer, both of which he broke off) until the last year of his life, when he fled Prague and traveled to Berlin. In 1924 he died of tuberculosis at the age of 41. Like another German-speaking Eastern European who also died young, composer Gustav Mahler, Kafka was an outsider; Mahler's comment about being seen as "a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in all the world" could easily have been said by him. But the comparison between the neurosis-ridden composer and the writer ends there. Musical composition finds its ultimate expression in performance - and Mahler was as much performer as composer of his romantically rhetorical symphonies - whereas the act of writing, about which Kafka agonized repeatedly, usually finds fruition in the interior reflection of the individual. But sitting alone in a room writing is hardly dramatic enough for a movie, right?

Enter Steven Soderbergh, whose job was to realize, in visual terms, Dobbs's premise on the writer as protagonist. In those terms, actually, Kafka excels: Walt Lloyd's black-and-white cinematography evinces a marvelous intensity, capturing the deep blacks and muted grays that characterized German Expressionist cinema in the 1920s. And what better set for a movie about Kafka than Prague, that great puzzle of a city where the author lived most of his life? Here each mighty baroque structure, narrow cobblestone passageway, and metropolitan vista emerges intact, conveying a unique atmosphere, simultaneously rooted in a glorious architectural past yet chock-a-block with thoroughly modern morbidity. (The old Jewish cemetery may be the greatest unwitting set construction ever, a veritable melting pot of vertically buried bodies.) There's also a witty score by Cliff Martinez employing the Eastern European plucked instrument, the cimbalom - echoes of the classic zither tune in The Third Man. But it's amply clear that for Steven Soderbergh the points of reference - which include the aforementioned German Expressionists, plus Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, a catalogue of film noir exponents, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil - are rooted in film, not fiction.

Even so, the story entertainingly mingles fact and fantasy. It is 1919 in Prague, and Kafka (no first name), played by Jeremy Irons, toils as a clerk in the sterile and cavernous offices of the Accident and Insurance Compensation Association (Kafka worked at the state's Worker's Accident Insurance Institute until illness forced him to retire). Kafka's job allows him time to fulfill his secret agenda, writing fiction, which he pursues despite subtle harassment from the chief clerk (Alec Guinness) and not-so-subtle harassment from an epicene office spy (Joel Grey). One day his best friend, Edouard Raban (a reference to another alter-ego in Kafka's short story "Wedding Preparations in the Country"), mysteriously disappears, and Kafka decides to take action. He embarks on an investigation of the Raban case, and soon plunges right into the middle of a fast-moving network of state and police operatives, anarchist terrorists, and ends up, in classic gumshoe fashion, fearfully but decisively rising toward the dreaded stone castle, which overlooks the city, to learn what really happened to Raban. He gets a little help along the way from a gravestone cutter and literary fan (Jeroen Krabbe), who tells Kafka of the secret entrance to the castle from the cemetery. The climactic castle sequence, in which Kafka learns each grisly secret from the Frankenstein-like Dr. Murnau (Ian Holm), is shot in soft, impressionistic color. The film ends with Kafka scribing a letter to his father and emitting a soft but forebodingly consumptive cough.

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