VHS or Bust! #4: KAFKA

We are pleased to announce the return of film critic and scholar Gregory Hess as guest blogger for the Facets website. Gregory will continue to offer insights into interesting films available only on VHS. And, where can you still rent titles on VHS? Facets, of course.
Franz Kafka is a writer whom most bookworms first encounter at a fairly early age, somewhere not far removed from their teen years, when his gothic, tragic tales of alienation and futile resistance against authority resonate with a bang, rather than a thud. Appropriate, then, that Steven Soderbergh found Kafka for only his second film, which he completed at the age of 28. His sex, lies and videotape had been an unexpected smash at Cannes and Sundance in 1989, going on to almost singlehandedly secure the reputation of Miramax Films, its distributer. Though Kafka failed to a similar audience, it may have done more to mold Soderbergh’s future than might be guessed.
Filmed mostly in black and white, Kafka opens on a man fleeing down an alleyway, pursued by an unknown fiend. The otherworldly attacker eventually catches him, shrieking and cackling in a disturbing fit of laughter. His face is terrifying and monstrous, pocked with scars. Another shadowy figure enters, and gives the attacker a bottle of elixir, which he drinks, cooing like a man-child. After this jarring opening scene, the film settles into the workaday world of Kafka (Jeremy Irons), the film’s protagonist, who works, as Kafka did in real life, at a worker’s accident insurance company. The man abducted in the alleyway was one of Kafka’s coworkers, Eduard Raban, and Kafka winds up embroiled in the mystery, eventually becoming involved with a group of anarchists (another faithful homage to the author’s life), whose mission is to infiltrate “the castle,” the faceless headquarters of authority, derived from Kafka’s unfinished novel of the same name.

For his second film, Soderbergh was able to assemble an interesting collection of actors for the film, though unfortunately none of them is given much to do. Alec Guinness appears in one of his final film roles as the chief clerk at the insurance company, though he mostly just sits behind his desk, sternly delivering authoritative warnings to Kafka. Joel Grey plays Burgel, the sniveling office tattle-tale, with a wormy gusto. But, true to the source material, most of the cast, which also includes Armin Mueller-Stahl and one-time Nicholas Roeg muse Theresa Russell, are stranded delivering musty bits of vaguely foreboding dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Lem Dobbs.
Jeremy Irons as Kafka is perhaps the film’s greatest folly. It’s not clear if Soderbergh chose Irons for the role, or if he was thrust upon him as a bankable name, but Irons’ portrayal of Kafka hits all the wrong notes. Kafka was a Czech, yet Irons makes no attempt whatsoever to conceal his British accent. Irons plays Kafka as bored and listless, and the character is never compelling.
It is impossible not to mention the absolutely striking similarities between Kafka and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, released just four months later in March of 1992. Both are movies about writers, and in both, the life of the writer, including copious biographical tidbits, is blended with portions of their fiction, effectively portraying the author as a character in one of their own stories. Both films also indulge in some fairly over-the-top set design, which is often so conspicuous that it becomes distracting. Indeed, the two films even share an actor, Ian Holm, cast in both films in a sinister role. Though it’s debatable if either of these films really achieves what it set out for, Naked Lunch at least has the benefit of Peter Weller in the lead role, pitch-perfect as the William S. Burroughs stand-in Bill Lee. Unfortunately, both films were considerable financial flops, failing to earn back even ten percent of their $10 million-plus budgets.
In combining Kafka’s prose and his real life, Soderbergh’s film does an inadequate job of depicting either, and the film is often a chore to watch. One never gets the sense that Kafka himself was anything like Iron’s character, and the film itself never achieves the tense aesthetic of Kafka’s prose. Soderbergh is able to create and sustain a mood throughout, but unfortunately that mood is little more than a sort-of-nebulous dread that is barely palpable, and goes absent for long stretches. Late in the film, when Kafka finally penetrates the menacing castle, Soderbergh toggles from black and white into color, and it feels like a desperate attempt to breathe some vigor into an otherwise lifeless film.
Cleaned up in a proper DVD (or, even less likely, Blu-ray), Kafka might look more than presentable in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Still, it’s hard to see the film as anything more than an early indication of Soderbergh’s growing pains, which continued through the early nineties as he stumbled through a series of hit-and-miss releases, before finally erupting into the art-school freak-out of Schizopolis, then hitting his galloping stride with Out of Sight, and never looking back. But Kafka set an early precedent for the interesting duality of Soderbergh’s directorial output, which has balanced commercially bankable projects (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven) with more risky, often artistically superior films (Bubble, Solaris) almost in equal measure.
It is said that, in some ways, even on the page Kafka’s prose is untranslatable—his sentences in German are often constructed in a way which English cannot duplicate, where the verb appears at the end, delivering a gut punch of closure and creating a sense of suspense and dread even within sentences. No surprise then that, even in the hands of a fledgling great director, the transition from words to images garbles the message even further.
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–Gregory Hess
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