Soderbergh's Kafka: in retrospect.
Adapting Kafka for cinema is a complicated and improbable venture--a bit like Fitzcarraldo's romantic dream of building an opera house in the Amazon jungle. Like the romantic entrepreneur of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1984), who must drag a steamship over a mountain in the Peruvian rain forest unaided by modern technology, a filmmaker can only hope to transfer Kafka's burden of cryptic dream-texts into cinematic language with a daring feat of transposition. In Herzog's Fitzcarraldo the technological feat of transference --dragging the ship over a mountain--is miraculously realized, but the impresario's greater, messianic dream of transferring European culture to the Peruvian jungle is ultimately sabotaged by native superstition. Perhaps Steven Soderbergh's Kafka (1991) has suffered a similar misfortune. After his wildly successful first feature, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), a debut that established the mainstream viability of "indie" cinema in the 1990s, the follow-up Kafka drew mixed reviews. While the debut film enjoyed critical acclaim, including the Palme D'Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, Kafka was perceived by many as a disappointment. Voicing a view held by many other reviewers, New York Times critic Vincent Canby bluntly called the screenplay "a mess" and the resulting film "shallow," merely "Kafka-ish," rather than genuinely "Kafkaesque" (Canby). Among North American reviewers the widely-held consensus was that Soderbergh had reduced a hallowed literary icon to mere cinematic ornamentation for a retro-styled thriller. Soderbergh responded, slightly bemused: "I was not able to foresee the possessive attitude toward Kafka of certain American critics. That an American would consider Kafka an icon seems a bit strange to me" (Kaufman 48). The European reception of Kafka was decidedly more favorable, a response Soderbergh ascribes to a less "iconic" perception of Kafka: "Curiously," comments Soderbergh, "people [in Europe] seem more open than in the States to the liberties we took; they are less protective of Kafka's image" (Kaufman 51). American critics, however, insisted that the main flaw of the film was its failure to convey the "Kafkaesque," that sense of menace and paranoid dread thought to be the essential "mood" of Kafka's fiction. As one critic puts it, Soderbergh's Kafka fails to evoke any "real sense of being caught in what people call 'the Kafkaesque nightmare,' the sense of a protagonist being trapped in a world that operates by rules he is not privy to" (Scheib). Nevertheless, the independent film community greeted Kafka with approbation. It was nominated that year by the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay and won for Best Cinematography (DP Walt Lloyd).
The scholarly literature on Kafka also offers a more positive appraisal. Donna Hoffmeister praises Kafka for "its pervasive and playful allusions," which in her view "create an ingenious web of intertextuality which constitutes, finally, a worthy analogue to those literary texts which inspired the film" (14). In his book-length study of Soderbergh's films, Jason Wood considers Kafka "an accomplished work on almost every level, a film that, despite previous critical protests, comes complete with a palpable sense of menace and unsettling paranoia." "Shamefully beleaguered on release," thinks Wood, "Kafka is certainly worth revisiting and stands as an impressive achievement" (32). Following the initial wave of negative criticism, Soderbergh sought understandably to distance himself from Kafka, writing it off as a youthful journeyman's piece. Two decades later, in retrospect, we are now better positioned to appreciate this early film, not only for what it has to say about Kafka, but also for what it tells us about the development of Soderbergh as auteur and, more broadly, for what this film implicitly communicates about the postmodern crisis of authorship and our current conceptions of the auteur. Given Kafka's enduring prestige as canonical writer, and in view of the attention film historians have devoted to adaptations of his fiction, perhaps it is time to reassess the merits of Soderbergh's Kafka-film.
When interviewers asked why, for his second film, he did not make another picture in the personal vein of his indie debut, Soderbergh replied: "According to [the critics], I should have shot a certain type of film, but I knew I wouldn't. So I thought that I might as well disappoint them right away by making something completely different" (Kaufman 48). This too might help explain the disappointment that accompanied the initial reception of Kafka. To the critics who, after the success of his first feature, rushed to include him in the pantheon of great auteurs, Soderbergh responded with a self-effacing disclaimer: "I am not a visionary artist. I don't belong to that category of filmmakers like Kubrick, Altman, or Fellini. I am not trying to impose my style" (Kaufman xii). After the success of sex, lies, and videotape, considered by some the most significant cinematic debut since Citizen Kane, Soderbergh was compared to prominent independent auteurs like Cassavetes, Rohmer, Truffaut and Godard (Tasker 303).
Rejecting such comparisons, Soderbergh prefers to compare himself with older Hollywood directors like John Huston or Howard Hawks, contract directors in the old studio system who, in his opinion, distinguished themselves by working in a variety of styles and genres rather than by creating a unique personal vision. To paraphrase Soderbergh, there are two kinds of filmmakers: those who have a style and seek material on which to impose their identity, and those who look for the material first and then decide which style would better serve the material (cf. Kaufman 141. My emphasis). Soderbergh identifies himself as the latter. The fact, for instance, that he chooses to work on projects of such widely divergent content and style--everything from big-budget entertainments like the Ocean's series to austere, low-budget projects like Bubble (2005) or The Girlfriend Experience (2009) makes it difficult to discern consistent generic patterns that could shape some sense of auteur identity. As Anthony Kaufman observes, "Soderbergh has amassed one of the most eclectic resumes in all of contemporary cinema," adding that "his oeuvre defies auteurism" (ix).
Instead of the film he thought critics and audiences would expect of him, Soderbergh sought out a project that would afford him the greatest departure from his previous film. "I wanted to go in a different direction," says Soderbergh, "to do something difficult, uncomfortable" (Kaufman 48). So Soderbergh returned to a script by Lem Dobbs that he had read years before which ostensibly narrates an imaginary episode in Kafka's life, set in the year 1919, when the famous writer was close to death. Rather than appropriating Kafka as a pretext for building an auteur style, Soderbergh sought a different approach, presumably best suited to serving the material. Thus, the screenplay adapts Kafka's fiction freely, entirely abandoning conventional notions of fidelity to a singular textual source. The result is a creative mixture of Kafka's life and writings, drawn from his stories as well as his diaries and personal correspondence. A thoroughly intertextualized construct, the screenplay openly displays its copious borrowings from the Kafka-archive, which it weaves into what Donna Hoffmeister rightly calls "an ingenious web of intertextuality" (14).
Because, in Soderbergh's view, Kafka's stories "are grounded more on ideas than on events, which does not really work for the screen" (Kaufman 48), the filmmaker sought to avoid a straightforward, singular adaptation of a Kafka text. The problems with that approach are best illustrated by Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial. "As fascinating as Orson Welles' The Trial is," Soderbergh remarks, "it shows its limits" (Kaufman 48). The critical literature on Welles' adaptation generally agrees that the fundamental problem with Welles' version of Kafka is "the way in which the personality of Welles himself overshadows Kafka's novel" (Brady and Hughes 232). Deviating little from the novel's storyline, Welles' cinematic rendering remains generally faithful to its literary source, but at the same time it exploits every opportunity to seize authorial control, staging a tour-de-force of auteurist adaptation. As such, Welles' version of The Trial, filmed in 1962, represents a return to the stylistic aura of his classic noirs--The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), and the late noir masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958)--films which helped create a style that would become the signature of Welles' auteur identity.
No doubt, Welles' approach to The Trial invents a rich lexicon for translating the Kafkaesque to the screen, but it also betrays the filmmaker's will to impose his style. For this reason, presumably, Soderbergh considers Welles to be an unsuitable model, exemplifying what Soderbergh calls "visionary auteurism." Side-stepping the sticky issue of originality in the postmodern era, Soderbergh chose to work with Dobbs' consummately literate pastiche, which in his view escapes all the traps of biography and adaptation, while retaining Kafka's central themes (Kaufman 48). In particular, the themes of alienation and identity crisis, essential elements in Kafka's fiction, resonated with Soderbergh. When asked if the protagonist of Kafka reflected any personal preoccupations, Soderbergh admits that "my first two films have in common a protagonist who is alienated and disoriented, bewildered by the world around him," and, commenting on their role as filmmakers, he adds: "Kafka hides behind his camera and the hero of sex, lies, and videotape hides behind the camera! Both films are about digging in order to find a hidden truth" (Kaufman 48). This affinity with Kafka's alienated loner is especially prominent in Soderbergh's early films, which are populated by the type of lonely, disillusioned outsiders commonly found in Kafka's stories--men who are not at home in the world around them and who suffer from chronic identity crisis. Soderbergh's outsiders--the self-alienated and impotent voyeur of sex, lies, and videotape and the narcissistic gambler of The Underneath (1995), for example--inhabit the margins of the social order. Like Kafka's outsiders, they are male loners who resist oedipal normalization, avoid emotional commitment, and are at odds with patriarchal authorities. And, as Soderbergh points out, they are voyeurs--they witness the predicaments of the human condition and document its absurdity. As voyeurs, they remain outsiders, passively unengaged. Preferring to watch, they "hide behind the camera."
Soderbergh's identification with Kafka as voyeuristic outsider is central to his approach to filmmaking. He prefers to receive the material passively, finding the style best suited to the material rather than actively shaping it according to his subjective vision. The choice of Dobbs' script is consistent with this intention. It allows the material itself (Kafka's life and writings, or in a wider sense Kafka's vision) to take the stage, alleviating the pressure to produce a more personal film in the vein of sex, lies, and videotape. Soderbergh's Kafka-film is, however, more than an homage to a celebrated writer. Homage typically signifies an act of self-effacement that subordinates the act of subjective creation to the reverential recreation of the source
material At the same time, as in the case of Kafka, a recreation can become a rewriting of the source. In this regard, the free adaptation that characterizes Soderbergh's Kafka reveals the performative aspect of adaptation, suggesting that in this context the merits of his film are better comprehended by a dialogical analysis which examines how meaning is produced via an intertextual dialectic in which models and their copies mutually define and augment each other. Such a dialogical approach seems better suited to an analysis of Kafka's mosaic intertext, which, assembled from bits and pieces of Kafka's writings, explores, as Soderbergh notes, "what the word--and by extension the man--Kafka means to us" (Kaufman 51). Thus, along with its playful tribute to Kafka, Soderbergh's film conveys a critique of conventional authorship and standard conceptions of auteur cinema. We might choose to follow the critics who see Kafka as merely the kind of clever but shallow postmodern pastiche of the type condemned by Fredric Jameson as "blank parody," but in doing so, we might be overlooking its commentary on the changing status of authorship and creativity in contemporary cinema.
As I shall argue in what follows, Soderbergh's rendering of the Kafka material conveys a sense, shared by many contemporary artists that the artistic endeavor can be invigorated by a retrospective approach that reconnects the contemporary artist with ancestral texts. As a filmmaker Soderbergh revisits early cinematic traditions, especially classic film noir and German expressionism, not only to find a style most suitable for filming Kafka, but also to veer away from more immediate models (like Welles) by shifting "authority" to an earlier ancestry. Through this rediscovery of ancestral texts, filmmakers like Soderbergh not only discover new impulses for creativity but also insure the continued life of older texts within the dialogical interplay of intertextuality. Following a dominant trend in postmodernist theory, Soderbergh attempts to erase the figure of the autonomous, visionary auteur by submerging the singular creative subject in the plenitude of intertextual relationality. Thus, as Roland Barthes suggests, a self-conscious intertext like Kafka is perhaps better appreciated for its plurality than for its production of singular meaning. What follows in Part II of this essay treats the screenplay in detail, demonstrating how, despite criticism, it is actually more faithful to Kafka than its detractors have previously allowed. Part Ill examines Soderbergh's use of retrospective generic styles to formulate a cinematic style suitable for rendering the Kafkaesque and, at the same time, how Soderbergh's approach offers a solution to the postmodern dilemma of authorship by de-oedipalizing the creative identification with immediate precursors (Welles) by instead returning to older generations of filmmakers and reviving their styles to pay appropriate tribute to Kafka.
As it unfolds in the screenplay, the story concerns a protagonist who, like real-life Kafka, has a dual identity: by day he works as a low-level bureaucrat and (secretly) by night as a writer of unpublished fiction. Upon discovering that a co-worker has mysteriously vanished, "Kafka" sets out to investigate his disappearance. A condensation of various characters from Kafka's fiction, "Kafka" (played by Jeremy Irons) is a pluralized figure whose textual identity cannot be traced to any single source. Like Josef K. in Kafka's novel The Trial, the celluloid Kafka is employed at a large insurance company, and like his literary alter-ego the filmic Kafka's after-hours adventures lead him to uncover an extensive network of hidden identities connected with an enigmatic and sinister power structure. K., the land-surveyor of Kafka's The Castle, enacts a similar investigation, seeking to penetrate and comprehend the enigmatic bureaucracy of the "Castle" which continually thwarts the protagonist's attempts to navigate its labyrinthine hierarchy. Additionally, Soderbergh's composite protagonist recalls specific features of the biographical Kafka: his notorious difficulties with women, his hermetic tendency, his chronic ill health (culminating in fatal tuberculosis), suggested by Iron's persistent coughing, and above all, his ambivalent and often antagonistic relationship with paternal authority.
As in Kafka's fiction, the instability of identity emerges as a pervasive undercurrent in the story. Like Kafka's typical protagonist, Dobbs' Kafka is characterized by an ill-defined guilt that haunts and subverts his often arrogant self-righteousness. His moments of defiant self-confidence are continuously subverted by an underlying insecurity. This crisis of subjectivity is further burdened by an all-pervasive sense of uncertainty--a loss of faith and trust in the predictability of the world around him. Josef K. of Kafka's novel The Trial (1914) has become the archetype for the instability of the Kafkaesque universe. Although all the characters in Kafka are in some way derived from the writer's life and fiction, the preoccupation with the male-in-crisis is well illustrated by the titular protagonist. Moreover, the themes of alienation, uncertainty, and identity-in-crisis that inform Dobbs' screenplay are articulated via the narrative structure. Based on the archetypal investigation narrative that structures so many of Kafka's fictional writings, one might call this form, to borrow Frank Krutnik's phrase, a "male suspense thriller," in which the protagonist of this type of classic film noir is put in a "position of marked inferiority" vis-a-vis the authorities and seeks to restore himself to a "position of security" by solving the mystery that drives the plot (86).
The oedipal struggles real-life Kafka endured with his overbearing father are represented in a series of encounters with various agents of a patriarchal order that extends from his workplace to the domain of the Castle bureaucracy. When first introduced, Kafka sits at his desk at the insurance company surrounded by dozens of faceless bureaucrats at identical desks. Arranged in an orderly grid, these figures represent the subjection of the individual to the regimentation of the paternal status quo. In voice-over narration, Kafka mentally rehearses a letter to his mother concerning his father, who thinks that his son is "morbidly preoccupied with the insignificant." "Well, for years now," Kafka inwardly responds, "I've led a life that even he must call normal, except for the fact that in my odd spare moments ... I write. It may be a disappointment for him, but I ask: Is it a crime?" Then, staring at the vacant desk and typewriter next to him, he contemplates the absence of his co-worker and friend Eduard Raban. The convergence of the final words of the voice-over with a point of view shot toward Raban's vacant desk suggests a connection between Raban's murder (gruesomely depicted in the opening sequence) and Kafka's ostensible "crime" of writing. A final close-up of a typewriter and two disembodied hands hammering out a text dissolves into the next scene, suggesting that the identity of the author of the ensuing narrative is unknown, but that it could be Kafka himself, writing an investigative report on his compulsion to write.
The mystery of Raban's death introduces the doppelganger motif, echoing the crisis of subjectivity found in Kafka's writings. Here the doppelganger functions as an effective means of thematizing the split psyche of both the writer and his fictional characters--emphasizing the Kafkan dialectic of identity: arrogant self-assertion (Raban as revolutionary) vs. submissive self-negation (Kafka as self-effacing office clerk). Raban's intertextual function in the story becomes clearer when we recall that the name "Eduard Raban" originates in a Kafka story entitled "Wedding Preparations in the Country." Raban, the central character of this story, must visit his fiancee in the country. Wishing to evade his obligations, he imagines dispatching his "clothed body" as a doppelganger to make the wedding arrangements in his stead. Still dreaming, his "real" or psychic self would remain in bed, assuming the shape of a "great beetle" (prefiguring Gregor Samsa of "The Metamorphosis"). The dreaming self could then languish in serene repose, in absolute control, not only of his body double, but of the entire world around him, implying that his withdrawal and desire to dominate reality with the power of fantasy inform the underlying motives for the author's creativity.
In the film we later learn that before his sudden disappearance, Raban was in line for a promotion at the Workers Accident Insurance Association (real-life Kafka was employed by the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute). In Raban's absence, the fatherly chief clerk (Alec Guinness) informs Kafka that he has been selected to replace Raban. Reflecting the doppelganger motif, the chief clerk observes that the departed Raban was "too much like you. Even more like you," he says with a Kafkaesque twist, "than you are yourself." Then he says, "I understand you fancy yourself a writer," and with an air of paternal concern, he encourages Kafka to "find a more athletic hobby ... put some color in your cheeks"--a remark that links the chief clerk to real-life Kafka's physically robust father who considered his son and his creative writing effete, if not decadent.
Amplifying the doppelganger as a double agent who undermines the unity of subjective identity, Kafka is assigned two assistants--bumbling clownish men who maintain that they are twins even though they share little if any physical resemblance. Always together, they dress alike and act in oddly unsynchronized tandem, completing each other's sentences, even though they often contradict each other, mimicking the characteristically shifty logic of Kafka's stories. Modeled on Arthur and Jeremias, the unskilled helpers sent to K. in The Castle, the assistants turn out to be spies sent by the Castle authority. Later, when they reveal their true identity and come to escort Kafka to a quarry where they will murder him, Kafka laments: "I thought you two were loyal to me. You're very good actors," an inverted allusion to the final scene in Kafka's The Trial where two anonymous agents (described as "tenth-rate actors") lead Josef K. to his execution (in a quarry). The play with names and identities in Kafka includes the police investigator Grubach (Arnim Mueller-Stahl), named after Frau Grubach, Josef K.'s landlady in The Trial. When Inspector Grubach (accompanied by two silent detectives identically dressed in noir-style trench coats and snap brim hats) questions Kafka at Raban's apartment, we recognize an intertextual cloning of the Inspector and his twin guards who appear without warning in Josef K.'s bedroom in the opening scene of The Trial. During his interrogation Grubach, who calls himself "an interested third party," raises questions of identity that extend far beyond the investigation of Raban's death when he asks: "Kafka ... 'Kafka.' Is that your real name?"
This ambiguous play with pluralized identity permeates Kafka's intertext. Consider the office manager at the insurance company, Burgel (Joel Grey), named after the messenger in Kafka's The Castle. Although his name literally identifies him as an agent of the Castle (Burg is the German word for castle), Burgel is also the diminutive of the German Burge, meaning guarantor, which gives the name a dual semantic resonance, signifying both with the manager's function and his relatively low status in the Castle hierarchy. It is Burgel's job to supervise (and guarantee) the delivery of all documents and files, a task he executes with authoritarian control. He demands that all company papers must be served by his hand, lest their value within the bureaucratic system (the sole basis of his identity) be questioned. When Burgel complains that the "Keeper of the Files" is waiting for a claim report, Kafka replies that he has already delivered it himself. "But I'm the messenger," protests Burgel. "When I deliver a message, the very act of delivering it, you might say, gives it an official stamp." Burgel's constant surveillance and petty criticism of Kafka and his co-workers also glosses the actions of Momus, the village secretary in The Castle, whose name derives from the Greek mythological figure Momus (son of Night), authorized by the gods to find fault with all things. Reminding Kafka that his "position in this firm is not unassailable," Burgel quotes the chief clerk in "The Metamorphosis," who threatens Gregor Samsa with the very same words. Alluding to the corruption of court officials in The Trial, whose law books contain pornography instead of jurisprudence, Kafka later discovers Burgel secretly studying pictures of naked women in a toilet stall.
Further instances of intertextual plurality can be found in Dobbs' conflations of biography and fiction, as in the scene where Gabriele Rossman (Theresa Russell)--named after Karl Rossman in the novel Amerika--and her revolutionaries try to recruit Kafka for their terrorist activities. Allusions to real-life Kafka's hermetic and apolitical attitudes mingle here with direct quotes from his fiction. When asked to write pamphlets advocating the terrorists' ideology, for example, Soderbergh's Kafka refuses, insisting "I write by myself, for myself." Although in real life Kafka was for a time attracted to the revolutionary politics of Jaroslav Hasek, he was, as Heinz Politzer thinks, "by nature unable to become a member of any party, precisely because his temperament was anarchic" (Kafka 119). Hasek went on to become a saboteur during the First World War, but Kafka preferred to stay at home and subvert the literary/ philosophical establishment from within. Meanwhile, when one of the revolutionaries in the film asserts, "You don't have to accept everything as true, my friend, you need only accept it as necessary," he is mouthing the words almost verbatim from Kafka's Trial: "You don't have to consider everything true," a priest admonishes Josef K., "you just have to consider it necessary" (223). Likewise, the pastiche text of Soderbergh's film need not be accepted as true or faithful to Kafka. As the author of surreal dreamtexts, Kafka was not interested in "faithful" representations of reality. Moreover, he refused to authorize the writing subject as an instrument for communicating "truth." If Kafka can be said to have any authorial intention at all, it is only the intent to stage the terrible ambiguity of human discourse as an absurdist tragicomedy.
Like his literary namesake, Soderbergh's Kafka spends his nights writing absurd stories which no one will read, including one in which a man transforms into a giant bug. His friend, a sculptor named Beezelbeck (Jeroen Krabbe), which resonates with "beetle," admires Kafka's stories, especially "the one with the torture device" (an allusion to Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony"). When Kafka later asks Beezelbeck to burn his unfinished manuscripts, should he not return from his investigation of the castle, we recognize the reference to Max Brod, the close friend whom real-life Kafka, anticipating the impending doom of tuberculosis, asked to destroy his unpublished writings after his death. In the film Kafka makes this same request of Beezelbek, after the sculptor has led him to a cemetery outside the Castle where, beneath a tombstone bearing cryptic inscriptions, he reveals a subterranean entrance to the Castle giving Kafka access to a hidden inner realm, beneath the surface of everyday life (and consciousness).
This scene initiates a lengthy sequence which asks to be read--as the film's sudden shift to color implies--as a dream sequence. Soderbergh confirms this reading in an interview for Positif. Speaking of this shift, the director cites the standard cinematic practice of switching from color to black and white to signify a dream sequence. Although Soderbergh thought that the film had to be shot mostly in black and white to maintain the expressionist visual style appropriate to rendering Kafka's fiction, for this sequence he liked the idea of reversing the standard visual coding as a counter-cinematic technique for transposing a Kafkaesque disruption of viewer expectations (Kaufman 49-50). After the climatic Dr. Murnau episode near the end of the film with its nightmarish revelation of the Castle's secrets, the film reverts to the dominant black and white, as Kafka returns to his desk at the insurance company to reflect on the strange events that have just transpired. At this point, as the film comes to a close, the viewer is invited to join Kafka and contemplate whether it has all been a dream, a flight of the writer's fantasy that began with a glance at Raban's typewriter. Such a conclusion is consistent with the well known thesis of Friedrich Beissner (1952) that everything in Kafka's stories happens in the mind of the protagonist, suggesting that what appears in the film to be diegetic reality might be seen after all a dream-projection of the writer's imagination.
Despite his aversion to the label of auteur, Soderbergh's films do exhibit identifiable patterns, one of which is certainly his predilection for transposing older cinematic models and styles into contemporary filmic idioms. The style that he returns to most frequently is film noir. The most obvious example of this tendency is The Underneath (1994), a remake of Siodmak's classic noir Criss Cross (1949), which in Forster Hirsch's estimation displays the filmmaker's "acute awareness of classic noir style" (29). Subsequent efforts extend and elaborate his assimilation of film noir: Out of Sight (1998), adapted from Elmore Leonard's neo-pulp novel; The Limey (1999), described by Soderbergh as "Alain Resnais making Get Carter"; and Tire Good German (2008), a period noir set in the rubble of post-World War II Berlin. When asked what vintage films he showed DP Walt Lloyd to convey a sense of the visual approach he had in mind for Kafka, Soderbergh cites Carol Reed's Euro-noir The Third Man (1949) as an important precursor. Soderbergh acknowledges his debt to classic noirs like Reed's Third Man with a generous utilization of canted camera angles (Reed's favorite technique), mirror shots (emphasizing the doppelganger motif), disorienting point-of-view shots, extreme high- and low-angle views, and frequent use of night-for-night cinematography to enhance the chiaroscuro effect of classic noir.
Soderbergh also stresses the primacy of Fritz Lang's early expressionist films--Dr. Mabuse (1922), Metropolis (1927), and the proto-noir M (1931). According to Soderbergh, Lang is a director whose "architectural" images are "still present within us because they are so powerful, like that of a silhouette dominated by the architecture" (Kaufmann 50). Lang's influence is apparent throughout Kafka's mise-en-scene, which exploits Prague's famed gothic architecture to create a noirish atmosphere of foreboding (as Reed had similarly used Vienna as backdrop for The Third Man). Prague's famed gothic castle, the Hradzhin, is a repeated visual point of reference, often returning as an establishing shot. Looming over the city, its gothic spires cast ominous shadows on the doomed residents below. Situated on a hill overlooking the city, the Castle conveys a general sense of sinister threat and the incomprehensibility of the presiding powers.
Speaking of his approach to filming Kafka, Soderbergh said he "hates to be cornered in only one type of film" and would rather "jump from one genre to another" (Kaufman 50). In an effort to match the pastiche style of Dobbs' screenplay, Soderbergh borrows from and synthesizes several distinct but interrelated cinematic styles, not only classical film noir but also its Germanic precursors. The opening chase sequence, for instance, recycles the imagery of silent-era gothic horror. As Raban is chased through the shadowy back streets of Prague, then murdered by a raving maniac identified only as "The Laughing Man," we are reminded of Dr. Caligari's somnambulant alter ego, Cesare. But we also recall that Caligari's double is already a relative latecomer in the tradition of cinematic doubles which begins in pre-expressionist films like The Student of Prague (1913), a film that initiated a series of early German films obsessed with the romantic notion of the divided sell including The Golem (1915)--also set in Prague--The Other (Der Andere 1913), and the Homuculus series (1916-1917). Moreover, this sense of overdetermination finds no better stage than Prague. Not only is the story set in Kafka's hometown, the birthplace of the double in film and, according to screenwriter Hans Janowitz, the inspiration for the story of Dr. Caligari, it is also set in the year 1919, the year that Freud (a major influence on Kafka) published his essay on "The Uncanny" in which he analyzed the literary doppelganger as a symbolic articulation of repressed oedipal trauma.
The gothic imagery in Kafka is also reminiscent of F.W. Murnau, whose presence is rather obviously signaled by the name "Dr. Murnau" given to the sinister mastermind in the Castle (Ian Holm). An especially salient intertext is the silent horror classic Nosferatu (1922), in which Murnau employs the gothic arches of Count Orlok's castle to create an architectural symbolism of fatal entrapment. In Nosferatu, Murnau repeatedly frames the cowering image of Orlok's victims, especially Hutter, with low-hanging arches, confining the human figure and creating a visual metaphor for their imprisonment in the clutches of the vampire. Larger, higher archways accentuate Hutter's smallness and prefigure his impending doom. Archways within archways create an internal framing that inscribes the vampire's coffin-bound existence as well as visually re-enforcing the captivity of all those under his sway. In a similar fashion, Soderbergh plays off the visual styles of Lang and Murnau, incorporating Prague's gothic architectural features into his mise-en-scene and skillfully exploring its oblique vectors and sharp angles to recreate the generic designs of expressionism. As in Lang's M, Soderbergh's camera pursues Dr. Murnau's victims through the winding back alleys and traps them under shadowy archways and bridges where they await their doom.
Soderbergh reproduces these architectural framing devices, but also mixes them with analogous elements of classical film noir. Thus, interiors shots are often constructed around internal framing devices: doors, windows, stairways, and corridors frame the pursued and pursuer alike, visually signaling the oppressive atmosphere and claustrophobic angst found both in film noir and in the nightmarish scenarios of Kafka's fiction. Contra Welles, Soderbergh keeps his staging on a smaller scale. Welles hoped to evoke a monumental dimension as part of the Kafkaesque, setting numerous scenes in over-sized spaces that overwhelm the individual. Soderbergh prefers to keep it in period--almost everything was shot on location in Prague, which, thanks to well-preserved historic districts like the Altstadt, remains almost unchanged since Kafka's day. Soderbergh makes no appeal to the surrealist aesthetic that is so often mistakenly conflated with the "Kafkaesque." Only in the climactic Castle sequence--shot in a studio--is there a break in the continuity of Soderbergh's otherwise meticulous attention to period mise-en-scene. Dobbs' description of the Castle interior (inserted in the original script) is noteworthy: "It's the most modern setting we've seen yet--but at the same time all this futuristic technology seems somehow archaic, as if put together from old, familiar materials and elements, both eccentric and eclectic" (Dobbs). This could be a description of Soderbergh's approach to filming Kajka--an attempt to create a modern text that somehow also seems "archaic," as if assembled from old, familiar elements. More specifically, "eccentric and eclectic" could describe Soderbergh's appropriation of older styles.
Soderbergh's strategy for avoiding the influence of Wellesian noir is to defuse or de-oedipalize his relationship with the father-generation of classic Hollywood noir by resorting to older European traditions. The more distant European ancestor is privileged over the proximate domestic precursor, replacing the Hollywood tradition with older and foreign generations of filmmaking. By reaching back to the archaic styles of German expressionism and gothic fantasy, the selection of historical models for Kafka illustrates what reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss terms the "principle of dynamic succession" in the formation of artistic identity. Jauss draws on the model of Russian formalist Juri Streidter to explain that dynamic succession does not simply denote an involuntary unfolding of identity akin to organic growth, but rather a psychological process of identity formation involving the revision of immediate precursors through a "recourse to something older," in other words, through regressive identifications with more distant secondary precursors (Jauss 105). By shooting his film on location in the gothic cityscape of Prague, Soderbergh reminds us that our historical view of classic noir as a cycle of crime films originating in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s should be deepened to include its origins not only in the German expressionist films of Murnau and Lang, but also in the "gothic fantasy" films of the Wilhelmine period. Genealogically, the earliest cinematic models Soderbergh engages in his free-wheeling adaptation of Kafka are rooted in a filmic ancestry which predates the modernist auteur noir of Orson Welles. This regressive identification offers the filmmaker an alternative to direct competition with paternal precursors and at the same time enables the revitalization of ancestral texts which, in turn, nourish the heterogeneous creativity of contemporary filmmakers.
In the dream sequence near the end of the film, Kafka infiltrates the Castle through a winding subterranean passage framed by gothic archways. Once inside, he meets Dr. Murnau, a scientist who conducts horrific laboratory experiments with human subjects (recalling Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony"). Murnau shows Kafka his lab and its scientific instruments of torture, justifying his gruesome experiments with the rationalization that it serves "modernity." To Kafka he says, "Your work has been an inspiration to me. You say you despise the modern, but you are at the very forefront of what is modern," to which Kafka can only respond: "I've tried to write nightmares, and you've built one." Here Kafka also uncovers Murnau's secret double identity as "Orlac," the supposedly deceased administrator of a mining facility in Bohemia whose faked identity provides a cover for Murnau's body-snatching operation. As a film reference, the name Orlac sets off a chain reaction of intertexual cross-references, the most obvious of which is Count Orlak, the name of the vampire in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (copyright law prohibited naming him "Dracula"). But a second order of referencing extends to the silent horror film Hands of Orlak (1925), and to Mad Love (1935), a Hollywood gothic-horror directed by Karl Freund, Murnau's favorite cinematographer. The mad-scientist metaphor connects Dr. Murnau to Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis, both of which feature doppelgangers and demonic geniuses who transform humans into machines. More distant intertextual relays might include Godard's sci-fi-noir Alphaville (1965), in which the villainous master mind is named "Dr. Nosferatu." Modeled on the madmen of Weimar gothic, Mumau/Orlac's ambition is to eliminate individual freedom and subordinate humanity to totalitarian control.
At this point in the narrative, parody begins to veer into satire as Soderbergh exploits a familiar theme of early science fiction--the fantasy of dominating modern society with technology--to voice a satirical critique of contemporary Hollywood's hegemony in the global film economy. Compared with the calculated blockbusters that have come to dominate commercial cinema, particularly the high-concept "locomotives" which capitalize on the popularity of science fiction and horror genres (a noteworthy example from the 1980s would be the Terminator films), Soderbergh's Kafka is a modest low-tech alternative. Despite substantial studio backing, Soderbergh filmed Kafka with old-style simplicity, without reliance on the heavy industrial machinery of big-budget blockbusters used to promote technical spectacle at the expense of creative imagination and aesthetic values. The underlying critique of the Hollywood blockbuster is reinforced by the blatant parody of a popular generic formula of dominant cinema: the James Bond spy-film. This can also be read as a gesture toward Kafka-like humor, evident in the comical paradox of the timid bureaucrat assuming the role of the suave action-hero 007.
The importance of the Bond motif in Kafka has been illuminated by O.K. Werckmeister, who reveals how Soderbergh's film, especially the Castle set-piece, parodies the formulaic patterns of infiltration and sabotage of the Bond-thriller, transforming the insecure insurance clerk into a daring secret agent who penetrates and single-handedly destroys Dr. Murnau's command center. Cast in the role of film noir's "wrong man," Kafka is unaware that his briefcase contains a time bomb and thus becomes the unwitting dupe of the anarchists' plot. When Kafka first meets Dr. Mumau, in a ritualized scene familiar to Bond fans, he is received with the improbable cordiality all Bondian villains extend to the captured secret agent. In accordance with Bond-film etiquette, Dr. Murnau escorts the accidental hero on a guided tour of his secret lab and explains his scheme for controlling the human mind. Hoping to win Kafka's sympathy, Mumau rationalizes his sadistic experiments as "the price of scientific progress." With deceptive paternal demeanor, Murnau asserts his kinship and common identity with Kafka: "But we are men of vision, you and I." Kafka refuses Murnau's offer to join him and then, awkwardly parodying the deft moves of James Bond, struggles with Murnau's bodyguard (Mr. Pick), whose stoic demeanor and brutish strength recall Goldfinger's Odd-Job. Kafka somehow manages to defeat the physically superior Pick, but his unintended triumph is clearly at odds with Bondian fantasies of heroic masculinity. This unexpected intrusion of Bond satire into Kafka-land destabilizes the generic and historical frames of reference, juxtaposing--in truly Kafkaesque fashion--Hollywood action film and Euro-styled art film to shape a meta-commentary on the commercial motives of formula-driven movie-making and its appeal to adolescent fantasies of violent action and masculine virility.
Although Kafka rejects Dr. Murnau's invitation to join the patriarchal order, in the end he does submit to paternal law, rehearsing the oedipal pathos of the son in many Kafka stories. When forced by Inspector Grubach to confirm Gabrielle Rossman's death as a suicide, Kafka acquiesces, even though the evidence confirms that she was tortured to death in Dr. Murnau's lab. Subordinating himself to paternal rule, Kafka agrees to repudiate the maternal anarchy that Rossman represents. Rossman, a femme fatale figure, encourages Kafka's resolve to contest the Castle authorities. Identified as a subversive and held captive in the Castle, she is tortured and subdued, suggesting that her feminine powers of disruption are brought under control by reducing her to the object of a pornographic masculine gaze, thus assigning her a fixed place of subjection in the patriarchal order. Here Grubach functions as a "third party" intermediary between maternal and paternal, offering an alternative to the oedipal dilemma.
Fittingly, the voice-over narration that concludes the film paraphrases Kafka's "Letter to Father," in which the real-life writer took his father Hermann to task for his damaging parenting methods. Soderbergh's Kafka, on the other hand, appears to reconcile with his father, with the hope that in the end his writing can somehow bridge their differences. The final words of the letter which end the film, quoted almost verbatim from the original "Letter to Father," reveal that Soderbergh's Kafka acknowledges his place in the genealogical succession:
I can no longer deny that I am part of the world around me. Nor can I deny, despite our differences, that I remain your son. And so I hope that these late and perhaps insignificant realizations might reassure us both a little, and make our living and our dying easier (my italics).
In Soderbergh's version, which departs significantly from Kafka's original letter, the paternal relationship extends beyond the immediate filial relation to include the world at-large--its social structures, ideology, and laws--as the structure of the patriarchal order. Although real-life Kafka did hope for some degree of "reassurance" from a epistolary reconciliation with his father, he wrote nothing about being a "part of the world around me." Clearly, the original letter has been revised to voice a specific reading, perhaps an intentional misreading, of the original. Real-life Kafka calls his letter a "correction," suggesting that his creative writing was a compensatory act. As he tells his father elsewhere in the letter: "My writing was all about you [...], an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you" (Heller 219). The only way he could come to terms with his father, and by extension the world, was by sublimating lived experience into literary fantasy.
Opting for a pensive, inconclusive ending, Soderbergh also rewrites the apocalyptic spectacle of nuclear annihilation that concludes Welles' The Trial. In the novel an abject Josef K. accepts his death at the hands of the Court. Welles thought it necessary to alter this ending and portray K. as a defiant activist, claiming: "I couldn't put my name to a work that implies man's ultimate surrender" (McBride 155, my italics). Replacing Welles' imagery of defiant self-assertion with a gesture of submission, Soderbergh ends his Kafka on a note of self-negating resignation. This admission enables the viewer to grasp the thematic function of the voice-overs that book-end the film: In the beginning, Kafka narrates a letter to his mother rejecting his father; at the end he writes to the father directly, acknowledging his place in the patriarchal succession. Soderbergh's film might be viewed analogously: By filming Kafka as a pastiche of ancestral styles and genres, Soderbergh subordinates auteurist ambition to the authority of cinematic ancestors. Thus, by integrating the style of film noir with its older cinematic antecedents, then further combining this hybrid with a satire of the Bondian action-thriller, Soderbergh situates himself at an ironic safe distance from more immediate models like Welles' adaptation of The Trial, as well as from the norms of mainstream cinema.
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|Title Annotation:||Steven Soderbergh|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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