Tag Archives: Kafkaesque

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ZEROGRAD (1989)

Gorod Zero, AKA Zero Town; City Zero

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov

FEATURING: Leonid Filatov, Vladimir Menshov, Aleksey Zharkov

PLOT: An engineer travels from Moscow to a tiny industrial town where he finds all the residents utterly bizarre, but is ordered to remain when he witnesses a suicide.

Still from ZEROGRAD (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: In this ambiguous satire from the final days of the Soviet Union, engineer Varakin finds himself trapped in the purgatorial Zerograd, a not-so-wonderful Wonderland of nude secretaries, suicidal chefs, and rock n’ roll dance enthusiasts. Zerograd can be enjoyed as a weird crawl through an enclave of eccentrics, but it’s also a major historical artifact documenting the dour mood as the Soviet system tottered on the brink of collapse. The Russian identity crisis explored here continues to trouble the world to this day.

COMMENTS: Varasky enters the nowheresville of Zerograd hoping to lodge a simple request to resize panels in air conditioners manufactured in this backwater town. This routine assignment turns out to be a never-ending low-key ordeal when he becomes witness to a suicide (or is it a murder?), which the officials view as a matter of great importance to the State. Varasky’s first hint that something’s not quite right in town comes when he finds the factory’s receptionist typing and watering plants in the nude, a fact her preoccupied boss doesn’t even notice. That’s odd, and having hopefully sorted out the air-conditioner issue in a day, Varasky’s eager to leave town. But, at dinner that night, the cook insists on serving him a desert that he has repeatedly refused to order. It’s a lovingly-crafted cake—perfectly made in the shape of Varasky’s own head. When Varasky refuses to try even a bite, the chef shoots himself. And then Varasky’s troubles begin…

Zerograd funnels Varasky through a series of absurd situations, all of which the engineer accepts with a formal protest followed by a deadpan look of resignation as he realizes it’s pointless to try to swim against the tide of the town’s insanity. Among the adventures the hapless visitor endures are a trip to the town’s subterranean history museum, where elaborate dioramas of uncannily lifelike wax figurines demonstrate moments from history that absolutely did not happen: artifacts from Trojans, Romans and Huns all improbably found in Zerograd. On the wall, a poster proclaims “The Source of Our Strength Lies in Historic Truths.” The malleability of truth to fit the State’s official position becomes one of Zerograd‘s big themes: Varasky’s personal history even seems to be rewritten to connect him to the town. He finds himself unable to leave: trains go into Zerograd, but they don’t go out. And besides, the town’s authorities have more questions for him to answer. He seems doomed to take up a permanent exile in Zerograd.

Zerograd emanates from the Soviet Union’s brief Glasnost period of 1986-1991, when filmmakers and other artists had an unprecedented (if not complete) freedom to follow their muses without fear of reprisal. That promise of freedom notwithstanding, Zerograd is still loathe to criticize the Soviet system directly: instead of savaging its conformity, bureaucracy  and rewriting of history, it attacks its targets obliquely, cloaking criticisms in obscure, absurdist jokes. Simultaneously, Zerograd expresses anxiety about encroaching Westernization, symbolized by the ridiculous rock ‘n roll dancing fever sweeping the town’s citizenry, which may be as crazy as the enforced propriety of the old order. A crucial speech by a Communist official at the film’s midpoint describes the difference between the Russian spirit and Western capitalism: the “irrational” willingness of Soviet citizens to subsume their personal interests for something greater than themselves, versus what he views as Europe’s “pragmatic” every-man-for-himself ethos. Despite Varasky’s travails at the hands of the bureaucracy, the official’s plea has some appeal, and the analysis of the Soviet dilemma emerges as ambiguous. Zerograd is a portrait of a society at a crossroads: ready to abandon the past, but unsure of what the future might bring. The film ends with Varakin in an oarless rowboat, floating away in no particular direction; his chance of escaping this limbo and returning to the humble-but-familiar comforts of the Moscow he left behind are laughably remote.

Zerograd had not previously been available on home video in the U.S. Deaf Crocodile comes to the rescue with a Blu-ray release from a restored print from Mosfilm, containing a new interview with director/co-writer Karen Shakhnazarov and a commentary track from film historian Samm Deighan. The disc is available directly from partner Vinegar Syndrome starting today (October 25); it lands with other retailers on November 29.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense for Varakin here — or, unfortunately, for us. We’re baffled but not interested. Possibly, this is because the director’s sense of the surreal is so obvious and commonplace.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

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

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.[efn_note]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.[/efn_note]

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: THE ANTENNA (2019)

Bina

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DIRECTED BY: Orçun Behram

FEATURING: Ihsan Önal, Gul Arici, Levent Ünsal

PLOT: A building supervisor deals with strange occurrences after a satellite antenna is installed in his apartment building to broadcast new government-sponsored news bulletins.

Still from The Antenna [Bina} (2019)

COMMENTS: Set in a Kafkaesque cinder block, but clearly inspired by life in Erdoğan’s Turkey, The Antenna establishes its propaganda theme right away. Mehmet, an unassuming apartment building supervisor, listens to a government-sponsored radio broadcast as he dresses. Posters of a generic middle-aged strongman decorate the concrete pillars he passes as he walks to work through gray, deserted streets. The morning report declares that the government will be rolling out an elaborate communications system intended to integrate all media, one which will require the installation of a satellite dish on the roof of Mehmet’s building. This achievement will be celebrated with a special midnight broadcast—one which all citizens are strongly encouraged to watch.

Although the contemporary relevance is obvious, The Antenna is set in an indeterminately authoritarian time and place. Along with the drab utilitarian architecture, the celebration of satellite antenna television as cutting-edge technology suggest a Communist country in the 1980s. The film’s aesthetic is grimly Stalinist: residents wardrobes are almost all shades of black, white or gray (Mehmet is praised for the “seriousness” of his utilitarian, monochromatic suit). Only the younger characters, not yet fully integrated into this society, wear the occasional splash of brown, or even dull yellow or red. The cinematography favors shallow-focus shots, with background characters blurred, emphasizing each character’s isolation. Strong sound design contrasts with the grim visuals. Horror movie music plays from the pipes in the walls, and the noise of the outside world subjectively mutes when characters are in moments of crisis. At one point Mehmet’s ears are overwhelmed by a welter of staticky, overlapping propaganda broadcasts.

The Antenna builds a strong atmosphere of dehumanization and quiet despair, full of subtle threats, such as the way Mehmet’s boss playfully slaps his face to remind him of their respective ranks in the power structure. It springs some effective horror moments: black goo oozing from the wall and ceiling tiles, Mehemt seeing a column of anonymous identical silhouettes peering out of their compartmentalized windows. Angry synthesizers and VHS quality satellite broadcasts speak to the influence of Videodrome and other 1980s dystopias. For all of these virtues, however, the script lacks some urgency. It spends too long introducing us to the desperately bland lives of the tenement dwellers; even though the first kill comes 30 minutes in, it still feels slow. Nor does the two-hour journey build to a powerful climax. The ending is a series of weird visual and auditory metaphors, which happen to the characters rather than developing as a consequence of their actions. The grand finale is a confrontation with a lackey; we never burrow down to the source of the evil. Despite these reservations, debuting director Behram shows obvious skill in building fear. It’s a talent that might be better harnessed in service of a more propulsive script in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this atmospheric nerve-jangler tips its hat to David Lynch’s gothic surrealism and David Cronenberg’s squirmy body horror, with pleasing detours into Dario Argento-style lurid giallo mania, too… [a] hauntingly weird debut.”–Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter (festival review)

330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

“Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s like, after hours.”–After Hours

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , John Heard, Linda Fiorentino, Terri Garr, , Verna Bloom, , Tommy Chong

PLOT: Paul meets an attractive woman in a Manhattan coffee shop after he gets off work. Under the pretext of his buying a paperweight from her roommate, she gives him her number. He calls her, is invited over to her SoHo loft, loses his money on the cab ride over, and is plagued by a bizarre series of missteps and coincidences that result in a dead body and his pursuit by a lynch mob as he tries in vain to make his way back home.

Still from After Hours (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally titles Lies, the script for After Hours was Joseph Minion’s thesis project for Columbia Film School. His professor was . He got an “A.”
  • Minion lifted about a third of the film (much of Marcy’s character) from a radio monologue by Joe Frank, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against the producers.
  • Minion would go on to write the script for another Certified Weird pick: Vampire’s Kiss (1988).
  • Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, then-struggling actors who took up producing, optioned Minion’s screenplay. They pitched the project to Martin Scorsese, but when they did not hear back from him they began negotiations with , who had yet to make a feature film at the time. Months later, when Scorsese’s first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart, he expressed interest in the project. When Burton heard this news he gracefully withdrew, saying he did not want to stand in the way of Scorsese.
  • The ending of After Hours had not been decided on when shooting began. (One proposed, and unused, surrealistic ending had Paul climbing into Verna Bloom’s womb and being reborn uptown). The first cut used a downbeat attempt at a conclusion that bombed with test audiences. Scorsese then went back and re-shot the ending we see today. (Director suggested the resolution Scorsese finally used).
  • Scorsese won the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival for After Hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Kiki’s papier-mâché sculpture of a man staring up at the sky, mouth agape and gnarled fingers held before his face, like a flash-fried Pompeii victim preserved in ash. Paul thinks it looks like a three-dimensional version of “The Shriek.” The statue turns up unexpectedly later in the night, and an eerily and ironically similar piece plays a key role in the climax.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Burn victim?; “Surrender Dorothy”; mummified escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: No other black comedy has ever captured such a perfect mix of unease, absurdity, melancholy, and danger with the light, unforced touch that Scorsese does here. Man’s fate in an uncaring universe ruled by the iron fist of coincidence has never seemed so horrifyingly hilarious.


Original trailer for After Hours

COMMENTS: Years ago, I wrote an article for this site about Continue reading 330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

318. CUBE (1997)

“Five improbable entities stuffed together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation, just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the darkness.”–Rod Serling, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, , Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller

PLOT: Apparently selected randomly, people appear in a mysterious, abstract structure which proves to be a vast complex of interconnected cubical rooms harboring random death traps. They struggle to find answers to their predicament and escape. Their lack of trust in each other gradually begins to pose as big a threat to their survival as does the Cube itself.

Still from Cube (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • Cube was shot in twenty days on a sound stage in Toronto with a budget of $350,000 (Canadian), under the auspices of the Canadian Film Center’s “First Feature Project.” CORE Digital Pictures supplied the post-production effects free of charge to show support for the Canadian film industry. It easily made its money back and has developed a cult following since.
  • Only one room was built for the set, although a partial second room was created to be visible through doors between rooms. Gel squares inserted over the lighted wall panels supply color changes.
  • All of the characters are named after prisons, and each name is alleged to have significance for their personalities and fates. Maybe it’s just a fun fan theory?
  • If you search the web for “industrial die holder,” you’ll see what they used for the door handles. Pick one up at the hardware store and add it to your arcane prop collection.
  • Cube has two sequels. Cube 2: Hypercube is basically more of the same, with new and more devious traps, while Cube Zero was an unapologetic B-movie prequel that supplied unnecessary answers to the Cube’s existence. Writer/director Natali was not involved in the sequels.
  • A remake, to be directed by , was announced in 2015.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a claustrophobic production like Cube, our choices are narrowed down to which architectural gimmick makes the deepest impression. We might as well spoil as little as possible and select the first one, where a bald character gets diced by a fast-moving razor-wire trap. It’s all the more shocking because he’s the face featured on all the film posters. The fact that he freezes a few second before collapsing into a pile of chunky salsa just adds to the impact: it’s a Wile E. Coyote moment (and a visual pun, because the character got cubed), yet doesn’t play silly enough to lose us.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aliens or government?, prime number permutations, the edge

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cube is a great example of how a movie’s premise doesn’t need to dictate its weirdness factor. The plot is straight out of the pulp horror ghetto, but the execution is original and intriguing enough that it transcends its genre. The developments between the characters and the structure of their prison lends itself to a puzzle just tantalizing enough to lead viewers into thinking they’re right around the corner from solving it, without ever actually answering much. The end result is an engineer’s fever dream.


Original trailer for Cube

COMMENTS: Are you an aspiring filmmaker with limited resources Continue reading 318. CUBE (1997)