CAPSULE: KAFKA (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, , Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Brian Glover

PLOT: Franz Kafka is a mid-level functionary at an accident insurance firm whose minor involvement with a group of revolutionaries leads to an unsettling discovery.

Still from Kafka (1991)

COMMENTS: Franz Kafka doesn’t deal in protagonists, technically. The term “Kafkaesque” suggests a main character who moves the action forward. Kafka’s oeuvre is populated almost solely by entities—from men to cockroaches—who shuffle through their environments without adequate comprehension, and without any ability to alter their fate. Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” wiggles back and forth literally on his bed at the start of the tale, then squirms metaphorically as he tries to maneuver through his new circumstances; Josef K. in The Trial (the better translation is “The Process) proceeds from start to finish never learning anything substantial about the nature of his charges. Franz Kafka in Kafka starts out as a mid-level insurance functionary and finishes one pay-grade above where he began. The intervening narrative never quite rises above an elaborate shaggy dog story.1

In this way, Sorederbergh’s Kafka is like its literary inspiration. Beautiful Prague, in beautiful black and white, is a maze of courtyards and corridors. Kafka himself (deftly played by Jeremy Irons) is merely a face in the crowd, albeit striking in his bland way. Kafka’s work chum, Edward, goes missing, is found dead—suicide, suggests an incongruously-accented police detective, one of the film’s only smiling characters—and Kafka makes the acquaintance of some revolutionaries. Ominous rumors abound concerning “the Castle,” seemingly the seat of government, at the very least the seat of bureaucracy. The ostensible doings of the mysterious administrators situated there vex this gaggle of bomb-crafting anarchists.

Kafka succeeds in capturing omnipresent but ill-defined menace, while simultaneously eliciting a shrug both on the part of the audience and the main character. Soderbergh does his best, though, and the whole semi-nightmare feels stylish and important as it briskly shuffles along as if carrying a very important missive for middle-management.

The film’s climax is strange, but it is more thought-provoking than anything else. Kafka travels to “the Castle” by way of a passageway in a false-bottomed tomb, and the film switches from black and white to color. This suggests at least three intriguing interpretative possibilities. Is Kafka (the character) seeing the world as it truly is for the first time? Or is the whole (comparatively) dazzling sequence merely a fantastic dream on the part of the hero?

My preferred view is the most abstract. At the end of the graveyard entrance is a file storage room. The hero emerges from one of its drawers. Is he—and by extension, the viewer—merely an archived history of a failed experiment?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly borrowing from the bravado visual style of Orson Welles’ breath-taking version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), Kafka is a less intense, more entertaining affair than the former film. Kafka‘s surreal yet strangely familiar fictional worlds have been given a dash of Frankenstein by [screenwriter] Dobbs, which makes for a more immediately enjoyable experience but somewhat diminishes the power of the calculated atmosphere expertly borrowed by Soderbergh from Kafka’s prose.”–Niall McCallum, Eye for Film

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch Kafka
  1. In 2021, an ostensibly different, and certainly revamped, version from Soderbergh (titled Mr Kneff) poked its head up at the Toronto International Film Festival. This item has not presented itself as “easy to find,” but with Kafka, of course, nothing is ever easy.

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: KAFKA (1991)”

  1. Mr. Kneff, along with the original cut of Kafka is scheduled to be released in a limited edition boxset from Soderbergh at some point this year, along with other films of his that he has the rights to.
    If you’re curious and want some insight on what Kafka was meant to be, Lem Dobbs makes some interesting comments in a lengthy career interview from 2010. (First of note – it was originally written as a supernatural horror film…)
    http://www.cosmoetica.com/DSI21.htm

  2. So what’s the exact reason that this movie isn’t weird enough? Maybe it’s my fault, but I just can’t seem to figure it out from this review (which is otherwise completely decent).

    1. It seems Giles missed this comment. I can’t exactly speak for him, but if you are wondering why there’s no section explaining why the movie will (or will not) make the List, we dropped that section a while back. If you are asking why Giles did not nominate it for Apocryphally Weird status, I would guess (from the content of the review) his issues are with the movie’s overall quality, not its weirdness.

  3. Ahoy-hoy, and apologies for not catching this earlier. Working with this subjective designation has its draw-backs, so I don’t know how succinctly I can articulate my reason. It’s a good movie, and it’s a bit odd; much beyond that involves the difficulty of me trying to prove a negative. Some films that I consider weird (enough) are not so considered by other viewers, and other reviewers. With any given questionable candidate I back, there’s usually a “something” that either tiggers the reaction or acts as the final weight.

    “Kafka” felt, to me, like a slow-burn noir thriller, whose strangest element in my view was the (appropriately) anti-climactic denouement of chronic illness and the reconciliation letter the protagonist writes to his father. The sci-fi side-show was entertaining, and provoked some fascinating interpretations, but still seemed like a phantasticcal graft on the narrative.

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