Film: Kafka :-(
Buh? Franz Kafka involved in a conspiration-theory plot, partly in black-white, partly in colour? So then I guess that putting his objects of affection out of context and logic is not a new thing to Steven Sodebergh, he’s been doing it since the beginning.
Yes, I dedicate my first negative text to Steven Sodebergh. This guy started his directorial career with “Sex, lies and videotapes”, chamber drama about sex, but without graphic sex. It made him one of the most promising directors of his age, but it still remains the only completed work of his, even if it was not the only that has shown potential. He made some commercial successes (“Out of sight”, “Ocean’s 11”), even scored some oscars (“Erin Brokovich”), but the fact remains that he made it as a commercial director of one-watching funny films, and he wants to be accepted as an art director – yet he fails every time he tries to make another art film.
My main grudge towards Sodebergh goes for remaking “Solaris”, masterpiece of Andrei Tarkovsky. I can’t possibly imagine what he had going on in his head, when he thought that he could add anything to the original film, or that his directing skills can in any way be compared to Tarkovsky’s. Sodebergh’s “Solaris” was bound to fail; It does not appeal to any audience; Audience of art films hates it for being a blasphemic simplification of original with romantic plot added for “good measure”; Audience of commercial films hates it because it tries to mimic the original, with the slow tempo and wanna-be-contemplation; Thus remake of “Solaris” was artistic as well as commercial failure. Sodebergh’s and Clooney’s response to this was rather predictable: yelling “philistines” on stages and in interviews, which, however, didn’t convince anyone that both audience and emminent film critics were philistines, only makers of this film aren’t.
My first paragraph reffers to “Kafka”, Sodebergh’s follow-up to “Sex, lies and videotapes”. This is visually rich quasi-biographic film about Franz Kafka shot mostly in black/white. Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is an aparatchik living in a bureaucracy world and working for a big firm, different from others only for being a writer at the spare time. When his friend gets murdered, he becames involved in a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of society – basically into a castle above the city, where all levers of society are pulled. At the end, Kafka manages to sneak into the castle and the interior scenes of the castle are shot in colour. After some mussing around and inexplicably being not reckognized as an insider, Kafka delivers a bomb inside the castle and has detonates it. Then he runs away. Tomorrow, he is surprised to see that nothing’s changed, that the same strings are held by the same people, that the bureaucracy is more enduring that he thought and that (duh!) one bomb won’t change the world. I wonder how this plot would be interpreted nowadays, after the escalation of terrorism.
This film is a failed attempt to be quirky, outrageous, new, but Sodebergh shows utter misunderstanding of the topic he has taken. For one, he misunderstands Kafka as a person; A lot is said about Kafka’s life, I doubt that there was any writer who was more psychologically analyzed after his death, both through his books, diaries and his famous “Letter to a father”. Kafka was a person with deep complex of inferiority, marked by an opressive figure of his father, Jewish religion in time and place where being Jewish wasn’t very favourable, and many other reasons; Results, strong impulse of self-destruction, exilerating paranoia and constant self-doubt; So much that he instructed his best friend to burn all his scripts after his death – only a few short stories were published at the time.
For those reasons, Jeremy Irons was a gross miscasting for this role. His Brittish cool is full of self-confidence, something very undesirable for interpretation of Kafka; His mothives seem to be simplified and brought down to pursuing a mistery and not a hint of an inner conflict. Irons, otherwise good actor, shows poor understanding of Kafka as well: he gives an impression more of a Scherlokian curious and confident detective, than of what Kafka was known to be. at one moment when he tells an occasional acquitance to burn his script, he does it not with a pain or self-doubt, but routinely, as if he was saying “they’re not finished yet”. At the end, when he sits down to write a letter to father, he does it routinely as well – regardless of the fact that this was the most painful act of self-searching that Kafka has ever taken in his life. For making a writer into a character, they had to grasp his character much better – at least with Kafka, they had material to work on.
But Sodebergh doesn’t understand Kafka’s work either. He takes a premise of cold, heartless bureaucratic society from Kafka’s novels. Atmosphere of opression by this society was so strong in his books, and became so well-known that today, “Kafkian” is a term that is often used for similar atmosphere in art. But what Sodebergh fails to realise is that opression in Kafka’s work is stronger inside of character’s (reader’s, writer’s) head than is the society; Kafka’s characters are deeply paranoid, their surrounding is merely a physical manifestation of their paranoia; However, the film doesn’t take viewpoint of main character for one minute, never looks through character’s eyes, thus the danger is real-life and outter, which is simplification of Kafka’s ideas. In fact, Sodebergh labours very much to, in last sequences happening in the castle, materialize every segment of society and thus make is as little as possible a product of Kafka’s mind.
Another element of Kafka’s work is sence of imminence; As much as character of “The trial” knows that, should he give us fighting, he will die, and yet, still slowly gives up, that much the character from “The castle” knows that he will never reach the castle – and yet he keeps trying. What’s more, Kafka penetrates a castle at the end of the film, with which castle loses it’s symbolic value.
Finally, world of conspiracy is not Kafka’s. Opression is his books always comes through legal channels, not the least hidden or even subtle. The world in which Kafka moves in this film is not the one of Kafka’s novels; It’s more resembling Pinchon’s novels, but even then, not much. One has to wonder whether Sodebergh ever actually read Kafka: From this film, it seems more like someone re-told him these books, after which he decided to make a film. Relations to factual details of Kafka’s life or even to elements of his books seems very brief and unimportant; We start wondering why was is important to actually make this a film about Kafka. It seems like, not relying on cheap hints at viewer’s erudition, this would be much better off as a story about unnamed victorian detective than this way. Because this film sure as hell has nothing to do with Kafka.
Finally, plot of this film is simplified, the process of unravelling the mistery is slow and confusing, only to find that there isn’t much mistery at all – nothing that we couldn’t’ve guessed at the beginning of the film. The idea that Kafka would try to destroy the entire society with one suit-cased bomb is silly and the surprise after he didn’t suceed seems fake – real surprise is that he assumed that he would. The way he penetrated the castle is also trivial and too easy. There is no connection between happenings and Kafka’s character, he seems intacted all during the film, and if he displays any emotions or changes, they seem incidental, not influenced by the whole conspiracy story. In fact, there hardly is any Kafka character in this film, as Irons practically walks through this film.
There is one good thing about this film, though, at the moments, it’s visually stunning: in black and white part, streets and buildings from the dawn of the 20th century have great appeal, wonderfully lit and photographed to create a menacing atmosphere. Even in coloured part, there is a lot of visual invention, specially the scene where Kafka and his enemy are walking on a glass floor projecting the brain of some poor guy who’s being experimented on. As one moment, some henchman peeks into the camera and his eye gets gigantically projected on the floor while fight between those two is still on.
But this is not nearly enough to make up for weak plot, equally weak main performance by otherwise fine actor, and for irritating insisting on pushing Kafka into this story, that might only flatter to erudition of people who barely heard of him.
About ten years ago, he practically did the same with “Solaris”. Maybe he hoped that fans of original “Solaris” would be intrigued to see the new one? The joke’s on him, I watched pirate version.