By Dan Krovich
November 14, 2002
Although the main character in Kafka is in fact the author Franz Kafka, it
is not a biopic. It is also not an adaptation of Kafka's writing. Instead,
it is a fictional mystery with Kafka at its center that incorporates elements
from his real life and his writing into a peculiar hybrid.
Kafka, as in real life, works at an insurance company. Like the worlds in
his writing, this company is run with an oppressive bureaucracy with a
strict hierarchy that is hell bent on following rules to the letter in the name of
efficiency. Kafka performs his work relatively dutifully, if uninspired,
during the day and spends most of his evenings alone writing stories, most
of which he doesn't bother to publish. When Eduard, a coworker, is found
dead, and the death declared a suicide, Kafka is drawn into a mystery that
reaches to the highest levels.
Eduard had been a member of an underground movement against the rule handed down
from those who occupy the omnipresent castle on the side of town, and Kafka
is introduced to the group by Eduard's girlfriend. At first, Kafka chooses
to discount the group's accusations, preferring to remain oblivious to the
possibility of nefarious goings on, but as more and more suspicious things
occur, he begins to investigate the dealings of the castle on his own. Of
course, that means challenging authority through a system set up largely to
block people from discovering what is going on at the highest levels, much
less being able to correct any wrongdoings.
As would be expected in a film concerning this particular literary figure,
Kafka is certainly a pessimistic film. It adopts the dreary world presented
in Kafka's stories, one where you work in a mindless job during the day
accomplishing dubious tasks for a company of dubious value and then satisfy
yourself at night with mindless consumption to numb yourself for the next
day at work. This arrangement is supported by an establishment that wants
nothing more than a bunch of drones to do their bidding. Soderbergh
reinforces this feeling by filming in black and white for most of the film
and the beautifully stark cinematography sets the appropriate mood.
The one problem that Kafka runs into is that it features an extremely
passive protagonist. For most of the film Kafka is someone to whom things
happen rather than someone that actively participates in events. Jeremy
Irons, looking very gaunt, imbues Kafka with an appropriately somber
disposition as someone who doesn't bother interacting with the world around
him because he doesn't believe he can do much to affect it (a stand that the
movie ultimately seems to concede). It is a fine line, however, to get the
audience to identify with such a morose character, and Kafka sometimes
strays from that line.
In general, though, Kafka remains absorbing, especially for such a spare
film. The central mystery sustains the movie and is buttressed by appealing
art direction, cinematography, and score, as well as performances from a
cast that includes Joel Grey, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ian Holm, and Sir Alec
Guinness in one of his final film roles. The film even manages to provide
some comic relief in the form of Kafka's two bumbling assistants.
Fans of Kafka's writing are the most obvious target for this movie, and they
would get the most out of it as they are going to get references that are
going to be overlooked by the rest of us. But Kafka can also be enjoyed on
its own terms without prior knowledge as well, and it is likely to provoke
consideration as to how much of the society presented conforms to the world
as it is and how much is exaggeration.