Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guinness, Keith Allen, Simon Mcburney. (1991, PG-13, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 7, 1992
It seems the lives of writers are hot movie properties these days. First Barton Fink, then Naked Lunch, and now Kafka. Whoever could have imagined such a thing? After the meteoric commercial success of Soderbergh's debut feature sex, lies, and videotape, the director chose for his second effort this hypothetical presentation of the life of Franz Kafka. The movie is not so much a biography but rather, a speculative depiction of Kafka's daily circumstances. While not untrue to the specific facts of Kafka's life, the movie focuses more on the environment of 1919 Prague that so influenced the author. In large part, the things at which the movie excels are precisely the things that also make Kafka's work so enduringly vivid -- the absurdity anchored by an exacting realism, the incomprehensibility coupled with utmost lucidity, the looming sense of paradox, futility, labyrinthine logic and impenetrable pressures. Two aesthetic choices made by Kafka's production team are essential to the success of the project: the first was to film in the streets of Prague which to this day retain much of the baroque cobblestone and brooding castle appearance they held when Kafka was actually roaming their paths, the second was the decision to film in black-and-white. Shadowed compositions and variegated tones of grey instill a slightly sinister, dreamlike tension to the events. It recalls the shadowy chiaroscuro of Carol Reed's The Third Man, Orson Welles' take on Kafka in The Trial and the glories of the German Expressionist filmmakers (there's even a character in Kafka called Dr. Murnau). Kafka is also full of marvelous performances with Irons, in the title role, turning in another finely etched portrait. Grey is perfect as the petty tyrant of the insurance office where Kafka works at his day job. And it's hard to believe that Kafka's two bungling office assistants haven't worked as a comedy team all their lives. These twins, who look and behave nothing alike, are hilarious to watch. Humor is a key ingredient in Kafka, though it definitely leans toward the wry and quirky. The movie loses some of its clarity and narrative force in mid-story however, though it never abandons its original visual style and focus. Kafka is stimulating blend of biography, hypothesis, interpretation and afterthought. It's a story about the 20th century.