Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka

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Do you detect a theme this week? The recent Pragueness had me watching this favourite film again. I unfairly dismissed Soderbergh after his debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), which I found to be two hours of yuppie tedium despite its winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes. That prize did enable him to make Kafka (1991), however, so I shouldn’t complain although I didn’t get to see this until it turned up on TV years after its release. The film was a major flop and put Soderbergh in the wilderness until Out of Sight (1998), his first outing with George Clooney.

Kafka is one of a small group of works wherein well-known writers become embroiled in stories which exactly parallel their fiction. Joe Gores’ Hammett (filmed by Wim Wenders in 1982) did this with Dashiell Hammett while Mark Frost in his novel, The List of Seven, had a pre-Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle becoming involved in a Holmesian mystery. The screenplay for Kafka by Lem Dobbs has the author falling in with anarchist revolutionaries in order to solve the death of a co-worker and a bureaucratic conspiracy. This was obviously too clever for a general audience, being littered with references to Kafka’s life and work and also to German Expressionist cinema with names like “Orlac” and “Murnau” comprising key plot elements. Dobbs wrote a couple of other noteworthy screenplays after this, Dark City, a noirish fantasy that does what The Matrix did only with greater imagination, and The Limey (1999), another Soderbergh film with a great performance by Terence Stamp as a vengeful Cockney gangster on the loose in Los Angeles.

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Alan Bennett had already done something similar to Kafka in his TV film for the BBC, The Insurance Man, which concerns a dye worker becoming enmeshed in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked as a clerk. Daniel Day-Lewis made a marvellous Franz Kafka in Bennett’s play and was far more suited to the role than Jeremy Irons is in Soderbergh’s film. This is a shame since everything else about Kafka is excellent, from the moody black and white photography and fabulous cymbalom-inflected score by Cliff Martinez, to the cast, which includes the wonderful Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm and—in one of his last performances—Sir Alec Guinness.

Kafka is also the Prague film par excellence, making great use of the city’s Old Town and landmarks such as the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, a building which dominates the story as well as many of the outdoor scenes. In fact I find myself watching it as much for the settings than anything else. Soderbergh enjoys cinematic pastiche and Kafka owes a great deal to The Third Man (which did for post-war Vienna what Kafka does for Prague) and—inevitably—Orson Welles’ Kafka adaptation, The Trial. Theresa Russell brings Vienna with her via Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, Joel Grey was in Cabaret, of course, and Alec Guinness isn’t so far removed from his role as retired spy George Smiley in the BBC’s John le Carré films. And halfway through the film there’s a great surprise which I won’t spoil here.

Kafka is available on DVD finally, although if you’re in the US you’ll have to import it. Soderbergh has talked about reworking the film in a longer version which I’d like to see if he ever gets round to it. Not an easy film to find but it’s worthy of your attention.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kafka and Kupka
Alexander Hammid
How to disappear completely
Karel Plicka’s views of Prague
Giant mantis invades Prague
Nosferatu
Barta’s Golem