"Kafka" is a quasi-biopic that takes the interesting approach of combining aspects of its subject's real life with elements of his most famous stories. However, the film is not just an ode to Franz Kafka's enduring work, but also to other notable cinema that Kafka had a strong influence on. It's hard not to look at the breathtaking black and white shots of shadowy streets and anonymous, lurking figures, and not think of Orson Welles' "The Trial" and "The Third Man." And there's a definite nod to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" in some of the later, more fantastic set pieces.
We begin with Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) employed at a medical insurance firm in Prague. He spends his days in bureaucratic misery as a clerk, under the watchful gaze of his supervisor Burgel (Joel Grey), writing his stories on his own time as a hobby. One day his friend Eduard Rabin disappears, and Kafka becomes aware of a group of bombers, including the lovely Gabriela (Theresa Russell), who are fighting a mysterious, oppressive authority in the town, that may have been responsible for Eduard's disappearance. Their intentions are unknowns, but they headquartered in the inaccessible Castle where all of Kafka's records and reports are ultimately sent. After Gabriela disappears as well, Kafka investigates on his own, in spite of the warnings of the law, in the form of lnspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the bureaucracy, embodied by the Chief Clerk (Alec Guinness).
What could be more appropriate for a film about Kafka than a paranoid conspiracy thriller? "Kafka" is full of shadowy men in long coats and dark hats who are up to no good, chases through winding streets and underground tunnels, and secretive, elliptical conversations. The plot resembles "The Trial" and "The Castle" the most closely, though some of Kafka's other works are namechecked. "Kafka" is patterned off of the German expressionist films, with a good dose of more modern film noir, and often looks like it was made sometime in the 1940s or 50s. Shadows and silhouettes loom large in small spaces, and the deceptively delicate score summons an atmosphere of creeping dread. The cinematography alone had me transfixed for a good hour, marveling over the period details and the old fashioned lighting schemes.
The story is a muddled affair, and the actors occasionally seemed lost amidst the half-baked conspiracies. Jeremy Irons doesn't get to do much as the hapless everyman that every Kafka hero ultimately is. The film, despite the title, has very little interest in giving us an accurate portrait of the writer, or any insights into his character beyond the commonly accepted historical details. However, Irons does lend a quiet reserve and intelligence to the role that is invaluable. Theresa Russell sticks out rather badly as Gabriela, but the rest of the supporting cast is excellent. It was a pleasant surprise to find actors like Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guinness, Ian Holm, and Joel Grey among Kafka's chief tormentors.
I didn't mind the weaker plotting for most of the movie, since it only seemed to be an excuse to stage these wonderful scenes of suspense and mystery anyway. It was only toward the end, where the film tried to give us definitive answers, that things went seriously awry. The point of most Kafka stories is that there is no satisfying resolution and there are never definite answers. I won't go into much detail because far too many reviews give away too much about the relevant plot points, but it felt like that later segment of the film was part of an entirely different production, not just because of how it was presented, but because it seemed to switch genres for a few minutes as well. Was this intentional? If so, I suspect that the talented young director at the helm wasn't sure footed enough to pull it off.
The young director in question was Stephen Soderbergh, fresh from his success with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." "Kafka" was only his second film, and remains an almost total outlier from the rest of his body of work. Perhaps it would be best to compare it to "The Good German," the black and white WWII film which Soderbergh made fifteen years later, with only the filmmaking techniques that would have been available in the 1940s. That film was also more style than substance, with a few modern touches that felt out of place. Were they simply made as technical exercises, so that the director could see whether he could work within these older styles and recreate the celebrated techniques of the cinema titans of old?
Perhaps, but "Kafka" comes across as more than just an imitation. The Welles style works beautifully for the material, and Soderbergh absolutely nailed the sinister mood and tone of the film. If nothing else, his "Kafka" was appropriately Kafka-esque.