CAPSULE: FRANZ KAFKA’S IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1993)

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PLOT: A tormented Franz Kafka struggles to complete the first line of his story “The Metamorphosis,” and the constant interruptions by wandering vendors and loud neighbors don’t help.

Still from Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, as promised, a legitimately Kafkaesque story, but with a cheesy Frank Capra twist at the end that is horrifying because of its complete tonal incompatibility. This beautifully written, acted and shot comic nightmare would be a shoo-in for a list of the greatest short weird films of all time. It’s perfect at a compact 22-minutes: could Peter Capaldi carry off this grimly hilarious mood through feature length, or would it become repetitive and oppressive? On the other hand, at one-fourth the length of an average Certified Weird movie, shouldn’t it be required to be four times as weird to qualify for the List?

COMMENTS: Writers find writer’s block to be the most horrific condition they can conceive of (see also Barton Fink), and although readers may not be able to directly identify with the existential dread emanating off a blank page, writers attack the notion with such fervor that they convince the viewer of the existential torment of white space. Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds at conveying the clammy pallor of the nervous artist’s soul through bitter comedy, both subtle and obvious. In the “obvious” bin goes Kafka’s rejected imaginary scenarios about what gigantic forms his fictional protagonist, Gregor Samsa, might be transformed into (e.g., a kangaroo). At other times, however, the atmosphere of anxiety Kafka finds himself breathing is so thick and melodramatic, with shadowy blue lighting and an ominous orchestra and strangers with intense stares and precise enunciation, that the paranoia plays as a parody. And even as we giggle uneasily, we wonder if the danger to Kafka is serious and real: a creepy door-to-door vendor fencing knives and scissors keeps hanging around his door, looking for his “little friend” who has disappeared…  The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction

The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction are so confident and forceful that it makes you queasy to think of the many wonderful films he never directed. There’s a deliberately slanted Cabinet of Dr. Caligari quality to Kafka’s apartment block, and shots and scenes naturally evoke The Trial. Although the short could have been structured as nothing more than a series of insane gags, the script makes it flow from one incident to the next, with characters weaving in and out of the short tale and everything connecting by the end. This mini-masterpiece of alienation carefully walks that same line between fantasy and reality, dream and nightmare, that its namesake trod, but with an added dash of dry British wit.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life tied for the 1995 Best Live Action Short Film Oscar with Peggy Rajski’s Trevor—the Academy just couldn’t let a weird film have the spotlight to itself. It’s available on a Vanguard DVD entitled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life… and Other Strange Tales together with three other comic shorts. None of the others are exceptionally strange. Seven Gates features two squabbling brothers returning to their elderly parents home for Christmas, while Mr. McAllister’s Cigarette Holder is a Southern Gothic period piece (shot in sepia) about a field hand and his albino girlfriend. The best of the rest is The Deal, written by standup comic Lewis Black, which satirizes the macho posturing of capitalism’s movers and shakers, who begin by plotting world domination but end up admiring each others’ designer testicles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has all the dreamlike menace of Kafka’s writing, while the story-line sends it up shamelessly… [a] midget gem of post-modern cinema.”–Alison Dalzell, Edinburgh University Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who called it “a wonderful short Kafkian movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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