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(American/French, 1991, 98 minutes, b&w and color, 35mm)

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

Jeremy Irons . . . . . . . . . . Kafka
Theresa Russell . . . . . . . . . . Gabriela
Joe Grey . . . . . . . . . .Burgel
Ian Holm . . . . . . . . . . Doctor Murnau
Jeroen Krabbe . . . . . . . . . . Bizzlebek
Alec Guinness . . . . . . . . . . The Chief Clerk
Armin Mueller-Stahl . . . . . . . . . . Grubach

When "Kafka" was released in 1991, a plethora of scratched heads and bewildered gazes were there to meet it.

Let me get something important out of the way: don’t let this forgotten diamond-in-the-rough escape your attention! Written by Lem Dobbs, scribe of such psychological mind-trips as "Dark City" and "The Limey," "Kafka" is a noirish mystery/comedy reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s "Brazil." But I must confess (and please, no shouting); I enjoyed "Kafka" even more than Gilliam’s cult classic.

Starring Jeremy Irons as a fictionalized composite of many of Franz Kafka’s literary protagonists, "Kafka" extracts various elements, such as paranoia and oppression, from the famed writer’s prose to create a film full of wit and expressionism.

Set in Prague during 1919, "Kafka’s" plot follows an insurance worker named Kafka (Irons) whose introverted lifestyle is changed after a co-worker is murdered by a hideous, giggling imp in one of the most terrifying scenes in the film. The murder leads the curious Kafka to an underground revolutionary group who claim to be fighting an underground organization that has been secretly controlling the city.

Cinematographer Walt Lloyd films the majority of "Kafka" in low-key black and white photography, and the amazing blocking and cutting by Soderbergh is reminiscent of such films as Orson Wells 1958 film, "Touch of Evil." No joke, this film’s style is a thing of throwback beauty.

When "Kafka" switches to color photography for its tension-filled climax, there is a single slice of dialogue that perfectly sums up the film’s theme for me. A doctor (played by Ian Holm) insists, "A crowd is easier to control than an individual. A crowd has a common purpose. The purpose of the individual is always in question." For those of you who haven’t seen "Kafka," that probably means absolutely nothing to you, but go rent it sometime this week and you’ll understand what Kafka means when he retorts: "You’ll never, never reach a man’s soul through a lens!"

When "Kafka" was released the reviews were mixed, and Soderbergh's celebrity was quickly forgotten. But the loss of the spotlight allowed him to develop something far more important than celebrity; it allowed him to develop his craft. It’s an immediately identifiable aesthetic that is drawing quick, and I believe, justified, comparisons to the likes of Scorsese. Mark my words, with films like "The Limey," "Traffic" and "Kafka" under his belt, Steven Soderbergh will one day be idolized in film schools such as ours with the likes of Kubrick, Welles and Scorsese (if he isn’t already).

excerpted from the Columbia Chronicle Online, Columbia College

KAFKA is the brilliant follow-up to Steven Soderburgh's debut film SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE. It is like its predecessor only insofar as it too is a chance-taker, a long-shot project, this time based on a ten-year-old script by Lem Dobbs (THE HARD WAY). It is also a film that is inevitably going to be compared both to Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL and David Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH; however, the other film that I was reminded of, and which almost certainly influenced Soderburgh, was THE WIZARD OF OZ. More about this later, however.

First, you should clearly understand that the conceit of KAFKA is like that of the film HAMMETT, namely that a famous author in the days before his fame becomes involved in a situation that is a pastiche of his most famous, or most typical, works. In the course of the story, the necessarily literate viewer is invited to pick out references to the author's stories. In HAMMETT, for example, the title character has table lamp the base of which looks just like the black Maltese falcon in the Bogey movie. In KAFKA, there are references to "Metamorphosis," "The Trial," "The Castle," at a minimum. However, this is a fantasy on the theme of Kafka, not a biopic, not film version of a Kafka story, and it is most certainly not that tired old cliche Kafkaesque, and it sure as heck ain't Merchant and Ivory quaint….

[Screenwriter Lem] Dobbs has complained that Soderburgh mangled his script, but whatever the truth the fact that remains that filmed script does an elegant and intelligent job of drawing on Kafka's life and works to make its absurdist points, at least until it detours into horror-movie mode. It is in this part of the movie that Soderburgh invites comparison, and a pale one, with BRAZIL. However, a more favorable comparison of the two movies would mention the sly and sometimes hilarious humor of much of the absurdism, especially Kafka's lines.

Just as witty at times are the photography and sets. Soderburgh and his cinematographer Walt Lloyd make superb use of the Prague locations. Most of the film is shot in black and white. Some of this actually started my heart racing with its beauty. The section of the story transpiring inside the Castle is shot in color, and Kafka's entry into this world of color, horror, and surreality has got to be modeled on the moment Dorothy opens the door of the house and reveals Munchkinland. The color is what I (in my lamentable ignorance of film technology) think of as supersaturated like what I believe is called the three-strip color of old Technicolor, that unnaturally rich, jewel-like, painterly color of Errol Flynn's ROBIN HOOD, especially.

The fantasy reaches its climax in this color sequence, but when Kafka returns to the black and white world of Prague outside the Castle there is a new look of unreality to this "real" world. I don't know if it was just me, or if the cinematography was different in the last b-and-w segment than in the first, maybe focused slightly differently. But I had the same reaction when Dorothy wakes up back in Kansas: those people are quite as real; Kansas isn't quite as real as Oz. Once you've been vouchsafed a vision, the quotidian world is changed forever.

— Frank Maloney, Internet Movie Database Movie Reviews Newsgroup

The story of Steven Soderbergh's first film, "sex, lies and videotape," is by now well-rehearsed: how he wrote the screenplay on legal pads during an eight-day drive to Hollywood, how he found independent financing and persuaded his actors to work on spec, how the film conquered the Cannes Film Festival and went on to be a surprise hit. What we now discover with "Kafka," Soderbergh's second film, is that there was a gothic stylist lurking inside the man who made such a spare and stark debut.
If "sex, lies and videotape" took place in a world of neatly furnished apartments and unremarkable cityscapes, "Kafka" seems located within a set designer's nightmare. The movie takes place in a Prague more or less like the imaginary cities of Franz Kafka's fiction, and then it moves to an interior set that seems inspired by "Bride of Frankenstein," crossed with "Re-Animator." The movie commences in black and white, but switches to color for the sci-fi climax, in which cross-sections of the human brain are projected on huge, pulsating screens, reminding me of nothing so much as the psyche of J. Alfred Prufrock, pinned wriggling to a wall.

The movie stars Jeremy Irons, looking cadaverous and wan, as a fictionalized version of the great Czech writer. He inhabits a world that owes something to Kafka's fiction and a great deal to other movies. The vast insurance office he works in, for example, reminds us of a similar set in Orson Welles' version of Kafka's "The Trial" (not to mention Jack Lemmon's office in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment"). At home, he writes short stories, including one about a man's transformation into a cockroach, and grows concerned about the disappearance of an acquaintance, Eduard.

It is hard to say what Eduard meant to him, but when he meets Eduard's lover, Gabriela (Theresa Russell), there is an opportunity for a retread of "The Third Man" if only he will develop a great passion for her. Passion is, of course, an unknown language for Kafka, and so the search for Eduard procedes less like a quest than like a research project.

Of all the great writers, Kafka may be the hardest to film, since his stories have their centers in the minds of reclusive, self-despising men who think mostly about themselves; Welles' "The Trial," brilliant though it was, did not solve this problem - because it took what was really the hero's internal feelings of persecution and made them real, and external to him. "Kafka" tries to avoid this problem by being about the author rather than his characters, but as written by Lem Dobbs and played by Irons, Kafka is a fish out of water. He belongs lost in his existential reveries, and it is more than a little bizarre to see him transported into the Mad Scientist genre, climbing ladders over domes upon which are projected the interiors of brains.

Why did Soderbergh make this movie? Probably because he admires the work of Kafka, and possibly because inside every filmmaker there throbs the desire to make a gothic black-and-white melodrama set in a mysterious and beautiful city. These are legitimate feelings, but should not have been brought to the same project. Kafka, as subject or character, simply doesn't fit into the world of this film. Soderbergh does demonstrate again here that he's a gifted director, however unwise in his choice of project. Maybe he should take another eight-day drive with a legal pad.

— Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, February 7, 1992

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