Tag Archives: Franz Kafka

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.)

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

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

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.)

143. THE TRIAL (1962)

Le procès

“It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream—of a nightmare.”–Orson Welles’ prologue to The Trial

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Orson Welles, , , Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, William Chappell

PLOT: Josef K. awakes one day to find two investigators in his apartment, who inform him he is under arrest and will have to stand trial. When he asks what the charges are, the police tell him it’s not their place to talk about that. The authorities release Josef on his own recognizance, and he spends the rest of the movie navigating a legal labyrinth, trying to find a way to absolve himself of a charge no one will specify.

Still from The Trial (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial” in 1914 or 1915; it was never completed and was only published after his death.
  • Feeling that studio interference had ruined Touch of Evil (1958), by the 1960s Orson Welles had sworn off directing for Hollywood studios for good (he continued to accept acting jobs). From 1958-1962 he worked on a never-completed adaptation of “Don Quixote,” then was approached by French backers about making a film in Europe; he would be given complete creative control. He was given a list of public domain titles to adapt and chose “The Trial.” (Unfortunately for the financiers, their research was faulty; it turned out that Kafka’s book was still under copyright at that time, and they were forced to negotiate licensing fees).
  • The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia, Italy and France. Welles shot the courtroom scenes and many of the interiors at the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris.
  • Welles dubbed dialogue for eleven of the actors, and reportedly even overdubbed some of Perkins’ lines.
  • In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich for his biography This Is Orson Welles, the director said that he suffered from recurring nightmares of being put on trial without knowing why and stated that this film was “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me… It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.” The director of Citizen Kane also said that The Trial was “the best film I ever made.”
  • The production company never registered a copyright on The Trial in the United States and for many years it was in the public domain, until the copyright was restored under the GATT treaty.
  • The negative of the movie was thought to be lost, but a copy was discovered and restored in 2000.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Welles begins the movie by narrating Kafka’s mysterious parable “Before the Law,” about a man who withers and dies while waiting his entire life to pass through a doorway blocked by a guard. The fable is illustrated by elegantly grotesque slides created through “pinscreen” animation (the images are created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins) by Alexandre Alexeïeff. Near the end of the movie Welles, now in character as the advocate Hastler, retells the fable, this time projecting the slides directly onto the face of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) as he stands before a screen. Welles’ hulking shadow, invisible to K as he faces Hastler, lurks over Perkins’ shoulder like the impassable guard of the tale—or like an angel of death.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Written at the dawn of the twentieth century, before the horrors of World War I, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is a masterpiece of nightmare literature and a harbinger of the angst that would come to define modernism. Orson Welles, the great grayscale poet, proves the perfect adapter of Kafka, imprisoning the beleaguered Josef K. in bars of light and shadow. Kafka’s story was a picaresque journey through abstract interactions with a sequence of bureaucrats and seductresses that, frustratingly, never brings him any closer to answering the central riddle of his indictment. Rather than elucidating Kafka’s text, Welles’ narrative decisions further muddy it, stringing poor Josef K along with a promise of an answer that never comes. I imagine Kafka applauding in his grave.


Original U.S. trailer for The Trial

COMMENTS: After the dreamlike prologue telling of the man who fruitlessly waits an entire lifetime for admittance to the Law, The Trial proper Continue reading 143. THE TRIAL (1962)