No one can accuse director Steven Soderbergh of playing it safe. After his success with SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE he could have done anything. But what he chose was KAFKA, a horror-fantasy thriller, leavened with sharp wit, and derived from the life and works of author Franz Kafka. Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is a clerk for an insurance company in a bleak Eastern...read more
No one can accuse director Steven Soderbergh of playing it safe. After his success with SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE he could have done anything. But what he chose was KAFKA, a horror-fantasy thriller, leavened with sharp wit, and derived from the life and works of author Franz Kafka.
Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is a clerk for an insurance company in a bleak Eastern European city sometime around the turn of the century. On the side, of course, he writes stories about people turning into insects and penal colonies where surgical needles carve the statute you have violated into the
flesh on your back. Yet he still seems the sanest person in his weird world of petty office tyrants, bomb-throwing anarchists and spastic clerk's helpers who turn out to be bumbling, murderous police spies. A shy loner who has published in only a few obscure literary journals, Kafka becomes upset
when his best, and only, friend, a fellow clerk, suddenly disappears. After making a few polite inquiries, Kafka is called to the morgue by police Inspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to identify his dead friend, fished out of the river as a presumed suicide.
Unable to accept the inspector's verdict, Kafka probes deeper and discovers that his mild-mannered friend was secretly involved with anarchists dedicated to overthrowing their shadowy, oppressive government, run from an austere castle to which many are summoned and from which no one ever returns.
Kafka's friend had himself been summoned and had been given a bomb to deliver by his comrades. But he never made it. While cleaning out his friend's apartment, Kafka and Gabriela (Theresa Russell), the flamboyant leader of the anarchists with whom Kafka's friend had been having an affair, come
across the bomb. After an attempt is made on Kafka's life, the anarchists are murdered and Gabriela kidnapped, Kafka takes up the bomb and heads for the castle to complete his friend's mission. He eventually infiltrates the very bowels of the castle, where the evil Dr. Murnau (Ian Holm) performs
bizarre, government-sanctioned experiments to turn people into pliant zombies using chemical and surgical mind alteration.
Lem Dobbs's screenplay is clever, intriguing serio-comic biographical fiction, recalling Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock Holmes fantasy, THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION. But the style Soderbergh brings to it is something else again. Filmed primarily in black-and-white (going to color only while Kafka is in
the castle), KAFKA draws its cinematic inspirations from venerable sources going back beyond film noir, to German expressionists like early Lang and F.W. Murnau and Universal horror-thrillers of the 1930s--especially the really weird ones like THE BLACK CAT and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS--scored to
jangling THIRD MAN-style zither music. Adding to the oddness is an excellent supporting cast including Alec Guinness, in a typically splendid character turn as Kafka's bug-like boss; Joel Grey, at his reptilian best as Burgel, the meanspirited martinet office supervisor; and Jeroen Krabbe, in an
uncharacteristic, though typically strange, good-guy role as Bizzlebek, a friendly gravedigger who comes to Kafka's aid as an admirer of his works.
The combined effect is to create a free-floating, atmospheric dread and malignancy, at once hilariously absurd for its pervasive, matter-of-fact paranoia, and appallingly deadly. (Much of the violence is kept offscreen, which makes it all the more ghastly.) Soderbergh lensed the film in Prague,
but it's no travelog. Consistent with the claustrophobic visual style of German expressionism, much of the action takes place at night and even the exteriors look mostly like soundstages. For all its stylistic flourishes, however, KAFKA suffers from a certain listlessness in the unfolding of its
busy narrative. It fails, especially, by not developing the conflict between Kafka and Murnau until quite late in the film. As a result, the odd early goings-on remain murky beyond the point of diminishing returns.
Throughout, the cast is enjoyable, the dialogue rich and witty and the cinematography simply outstanding. But, after a while, you begin wishing Soderbergh would quit fussing around and get his plot going. While there's nothing seriously self-indulgent about KAFKA, it's as if Soderbergh, in
tackling the enormous aesthetic, dramatic and narrative challenges posed by the film, were simply trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. And, at times, KAFKA does have an air of grand folly about it. But, more often, it evokes a grand, though playful, passion to create something
entirely unique and original. In that, Soderbergh has certainly succeeded, continuing to fulfill his promise as one of the most exciting new American directors working in movies today. (Violence.)
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