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.

That last bit of detail is emblematic of Kafka's all-embracing tackiness. But still the film is well cast and shot. Notwithstanding that Franz Kafka was not the man of action Soderbergh would have us believe (and Jeremy Irons is about as Jewish as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding), Irons's elegantly sustained dispassion, an English trait, suits the movie Kafka's introspection, a writer's trait. The supporting players are basically left to their own devices, which is fine for such theatrically solid performers as Guinness, Grey, Holm, and Krabbe. But what of poor Theresa Russell, a fill-in for another actress who - perhaps wisely -dropped out of this project? She plays Gabriela Rossman, an anarchist, like a SoCal hooker waiting to turn tricks at a San Fernando valley mall. (She played that role last year for her vulgarian namesake, Ken Russell.)

The most interesting argument over this film has less to do with the author of Amerika than it does with the author of the screenplay, Lem Dobbs. Film critic Vincent Canby neatly panned Kafka in the New York Times as "a very bad well-directed movie," and said of Dobbs's screenplay: "It has the blinding optimism of a sophomore who expects his five-page outline for a novel to win a National Book Award." Then, in a later article by Bernard Weintraub about the screenwriter's criticisms over the finished product, director Soderbergh, speaking more half-wittedly than anyone thought possible, confessed to a superficial take on Kafka: "I really wanted to make a mystery thriller and not a biography." Dobbs, denouncing the film as a thoroughly trashed version of his work by Soderbergh, complained, "If I gave it a moment's thought as a screenwriter, I'd have to slash my wrists." Calling the assumed collaborative process of filmmaking "a ridiculous myth," Dobbs said he plans to direct his own material from now on.

Ah, the old auteurist ruse.
Keeping in mind David Lean's line about the movies not having yet found their Michelangelo, the next question is: Who makes the movies? In fact, that was the very title of a 1976 essay that appeared in The New York Review of Books by one-time screenwriter Gore Vidal, in which he adroitly skewered the auteur mystique and placed the moviemaking process, warts and all, at the hands of the writer. "Since the talking movie is closest in form to the novel," concluded Vidal, "it strikes me that the rising literary generation might think of the movies as, peculiarly, their kind of novel, to be created by them in collaboration with technicians but without the interference of The Director, that hustler-plagiarist who has for twenty years dominated and exploited and (occasionally) enhanced an art form still in search of its true authors." In light of this proposal, perhaps Dobbs's original thoughts were truer to Kafka's life, less kitschy, and in and of themselves, more interesting and deserving of consideration. But would that have delivered a better film?

I doubt it. Canby is correct: Kafka is basically an insulting idea realized well enough. Further, the great author would have been appalled. In a letter written in 1915 to his publisher apropos of "The Metamorphosis," Kafka expressed serious misgivings about an illustrator drawing the imposing vermin of the story. "Not that, please not that," implored Kafka. And he was right, for the widest possible canvas to depict such a startling image -and so many others strewn across Kafka's work - resides solely in the space between one's ears, in the more diverse stage of the mind. It is a caveat both Dobbs and Soderbergh, more alike in their pro-movie view than their public spat indicates, should ponder the next time they aim to conquer the literary world. Movies being what they are these days, they probably won't.

KAFKA
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; with Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Alec Guinness. Rated PG-13.

Opens Friday.

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