As we all know, when it comes to Christopher Lambert, there can be only one. However, writing about every movie in an actor's 30+ year filmography is a big job - too much for a single man who's got Marvel cards to organize and jazz trios to brawl with. So for this installment of the epic Lambertathon, John Cribbs passes the torch to North-East Scotland's finest film blogger Kevin Sturton.
In addition to writing about various Lambert-instensive obscurities like Music and Words and I Love You, our Lamberthathon authors (in this case Mr. Sturton) have selected a supplementary film to pair with each installment of the Lambertathon. Today, to pair with his piece on Nirvana, Sturton weighs in on another tale of a creator caught in their creation: Steven Soderbergh's Kafka.
This article supplements Sturton's Lambertathon piece on Nirvana.
steven soderbergh, 1991
~ by kevin sturton ~
On the surface a cyberpunk thriller seems to have little in common with a fictional biopic about one of the great writers of the 20th century, but Gabriele Salvatore’s Nirvana and Kafka essentially tell the same story. A reclusive genius is drawn back into the world to help his only friend. This means crossing a powerful organisation who run the city. Along the way he encounters a group of anarchists and becomes a fugitive. Horrified by how others have misinterpreted his work he resolves to destroy what they created in his name. Afterwards he finds a measure of peace, even though his short term prospects seem bleak.
As with Nirvana the film has gained a minor cult following over the years even though neither found favour at the time of its release. Soderbergh was 26 when he won the Palme D’Or for his debut feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and by following this precocious success up with a black and white movie about a European novelist filled with literary and film references he was probably asking for a kicking and he duly got one. Vincent Canby in the New York Times described Kafka as being “the work of a sophomore who expects his five- page outline to win the National Book Award.”
Danby was a little harsh. Soderbergh’s approach to the material may be over-stylised, but screenwriter Lem Dobbs successfully channels the dark humour running through Kafka’s work. The film is playful rather than pretentious, and though it doesn’t quite match the Alan Bennett scripted BBC play The Insurance Man (1986, Richard Eyre), which also used Kafka’s life and work as its inspiration, Soderbergh’s film is highly entertaining with a lovely performance from Jeremy Irons.
The film is set in 1919, when Kafka was 35 years old and only a few years away from an early death. The opening scene is more akin to a George Romero movie as a studious-looking young man, Eduard Rabin (Vladimir Gut), is pursued through the streets by a feral zombie like creature. Next morning Kafka sits at his desk at the insurance company where he works staring at Rabin’s empty chair, his carefully ordered world thrown off balance by the absence of his friend. Kafka’s only connection to Rabin is co-worker Gabriella Rossman (Theresa Russell).
Rossman is initially wary of Kafka and makes sure nobody sees them speaking together at work. With good reason for it turns out she is a member of an anarchist group orchestrating a bombing campaign against rich industrialists. Rabin was a member of her group, and had been sent for by the authorities at the Castle the day before. Rossman tries to get Kafka to write propaganda for them but he rejects their offer. “I write by myself, for myself.”
In a scene reminiscent of the opening of his novel The Trial, Kafka is visited by three policemen led by the amiable but quietly menacing Inspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who take him to identify the Rabin’s body. Shortly afterwards Rossman vanishes and Kafka becomes a hunted man. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Grubach is using Kafka to go places the law would never allow him to reach.
There are plenty of nods to Kafka’s fiction. Aquaintances of Kafka’s ask him what he’s writing about at the moment and much to their amusement he admits he’s writing a story about a man who wakes up to find him transformed into a giant bug, a reference to Gregor Samsa in ‘Metamorphosis.’ At one point Kafka witnesses two men murdering a man in a manner similar to the fate that befalls Joseph K in The Trial. In Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle the protagonist K is given assistants, twins, who follow his every move. Here Simon McBurney and Keith Allen play a pair of non-identical twins who seem to delight in annoying Kafka. At the heart of the film is the Castle being a mysterious place out of reach for everybody except those who are summoned. A shot of Kafka approaching the entrance during the film’s final act looks very much like the short story ‘At the Door of the Law,’ used by Orson Welles to open his 1962 version of The Trial.
Visually the film resembles Robert Krasker’s cinematography on The Third Man (49, Carol Reed), with Soderbergh adopting a similar noirish approach, albeit mixed with a variety of other styles including horror and occasionally German Expressionism. Kafka is one of the first films shot in Prague since the fall of the Iron Curtain and Soderbergh makes great use of the narrow streets of the city’s Old Town.
As with Jimi in Nirvana, at a key point in the story Kafka is lost in the city when he is saved by an ally who is familiar with his creative work. As well as providing comic relief Bizzlebek (Jeroen Krabbe) has read Kafka’s work and relates to it. Like Kafka he is an artist trapped in a dead end job. As a gravedigger he passes unnoticed through the city. Bizzlebek knows where the bodies are buried, literally, and who helped put them there. Bizzlebek is also a surrogate for Kafka’s own real life best friend Max Brod. Kafka’s instructions for Brod to burn his work in the event of his death are here given to Bizzlebek, who also refuses.
Once inside the film switches from black and white to colour. It’s a fairly clumsy device intent as a through the looking glass moment but what is found there is banal compared Kafka’s own fiction. Dr Murnau (Ian Holm) is conducting medical experiments on the poor and dispossessed to create a more effective workforce and crediting Kafka’s fiction as his inspiration. It’s too obvious and owes more to more conventional horror stories than Kafka’s uneasy nightmares and calling your villain Murnau is highly irritating and shouldn’t be done outside of film school projects.
Watching Kafka again I was struck by how much it resonates with Soderbergh’s latest work The Knick (2014-). Set slightly earlier at the turn of the 20th century it nevertheless features a doctor experimenting on human subjects with untried medical techniques, and has an interest in how the workforce are treated by emerging new industries. Soderbergh has spoken of revisiting Kafka in some form, probably a re-edit but I’d imagine HBO or any other network would let him do whatever he wants. A remake, or even an adaptation of one of Kafka's works done in a similar style to The Knick, would be very welcome.
~ MAY 26, 2016 ~
NEXT TIME: Is it finally Highlander time? Only the mercurial & untameable John Cribbs knows for certain.