Kafka (1991)

“That’s what you’re trying to eliminate, isn’t it?  
Everything that makes one human being different from another.” 

Perhaps it says the most to admit that, even so soon, I wouldn’t mind watching this again.

Hollywood and great authors rarely go together.  If that great author is Franz Kafka, one of my favorites, then the very concept is shaky and a good execution defies all odds.  Interestingly enough, Kafka makes up its own concept and just goes for it.  Somehow even the pickiest of critics can find something to like about it.

But can we talk about Jeremy Irons for a minute?  Portraying Kafka, he strikingly resembles Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, which is only a good thing.  More to the point, Irons is the glue that holds the show together.  The supporting cast is fine, the script is pretty good, yet he is the one who brings credibility to the setting.  His timidity and humorless perspective bring out the best parts of Gregor Samsa, Josef K., and the rest of Kafka’s book protagonists, and fortunately he has few of their faults.

We follow Kafka through a tangled plot which, despite its problems, I must applaud for its attempt.  It places the author himself in various Kafkaesque elements, such as the Castle, Gregor’s troubled relationship with his family, and the general unease from The Trial.  Then it combines them all under an umbrella plot of revolutionary terrorists plotting against a dictatorial government.

I would take issue with this, except that it makes a degree of sense, taking Kafka as a movie, which it is.  You have to give moviegoers a plot – beginning, middle, end.  Kafka manages to present Kafkaesque “monotony,” if you will, in a more palatable and familiar format, without really sacrificing anything important.  Some may disagree, but I don’t think this addition was altogether a negative.

The dialogue was the main disappointment.  There were times it didn’t feel genuine, or it glossed over things such as the development of the female character, Gabriela.  This was when the Hollywoodization was most apparent (as an aside, there are exceptions to every rule: Lincoln, for example, had very well-written dialogue.)  Probably not so noticeable if not compared to the books…but that’s what I’m here for.  🙂

Production-wise, I enjoyed the soundtrack of Eastern European-inspired music and black-and-white cinematography.  That’s kind of an understatement – the visuals were stunning.  The scenes of the office, streets, and Castle were properly cluttered and claustrophobic and eerie.  The chase scene down the elevator was way creepy.  Is it strictly Kafkaesque?  No, but it is cinematically Kafkaesque.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this film to non-Kafka fans.  It really depends on what you like to watch.  As a fan, I thought it was worthwhile, and in a sense, much less “dark” than the books themselves.  Dramatization takes some of the mystery out of it.  What you lose in psychological subtlety you gain in entertainment value, and that trade-off, in this unusual adaptation, turns out mostly for the best.

Content:  Rated PG-13 for some frightening scenes and a nude image.  One of the villains goes into a restroom to look at photos of female models.  A maniacal assassin chases people at night; one character seen in the distance is stabbed; a man is tortured off-screen…unsure if anything is later shown.  Near the end a man is shown strapped down while his brain is being examined, a little graphic.  Overall, comparable to some Doctor Who episodes, without the lightheartedness.  On a positive note: no profanity or language that I recall.  (Also, it is easy to anticipate scenes to fast-forward, if you are a bit squeamish like me.)


Disclaimer: I don’t own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use). 

"Josef K. was dreaming."

Last fall, at long last, I got a copy of Kafka’s Complete Short Stories.  (That would be most everything except The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.)  It’s a book to be savored slowly, piece by piece, while imagining it to be twice its length (~ 450 p.).  I quickly found the best way to read it is jumping back and forth between the longer stories in the front and the micro fiction in the back.

Franz Kafka – most people love his books or despise them.  That’s pretty understandable.  He’s not the most accessible of authors.  On my part, I fell for his writing after listening to The Metamorphosis; since then, I keep coming back to his books.  Back to their chilling simplicity, back to their gloomy, frequently vulgar depiction of society.  Back to the endless plots that lead nowhere good!

But of course, there’s more to it than that.  There is a lot of truth in Kafka’s world.  Absurdity, isolation, irony, and confusion.  The real world is not so far off; sometimes it is identical – mazes of bureaucracy and words, the sheer audacity of words.  Kafka’s vocabulary is simple, but his sentences are intricate.  His paragraphs are monstrosities, and he is making a point the whole time.  You feel the claustrophobia in those long, long paragraphs, just as you feel the futility of the protagonists’ repeated attempts at arriving at the solution.  You sink into their struggle to follow protocol and responsibilities, while vague frustrations meet them at every turn.  The reader need not like the protagonists; I rarely do.  It’s the setting that is fascinating, and it’s the conflict that motivates the stories.

I’ll be very sorry to get to the end of Kafka’s writings – that is why I’m glad to be reading this one slowly.  

Kafka’s Copperfield in Amerika

“My intention was . . . to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior.” 

– Diaries (1946), qtd. in “Amerika (novel),” Wikipedia.

It is rarely my choice to read Franz Kafka all the way through.  Which is to say, I frequently express the intention of reading Kafka, and I read parts of his writings, but I tend to stumble upon reading any work of his in its entirety.  Amerika: or, The Missing Person (1927) was no exception – choosing it as my third read for the Turn of the Century Salon was a spontaneous decision, especially since I had previously determined not to read it in any case (I had very low expectations for a Kafka novel set in the U.S., rather than in Europe).

For this and many other reasons, irony is a good adjective to describe Amerika and Kafka in general.  To name one example – could anything be more ironic than Kafka writing a novel on a country he never visited?  But Kafka is Kafka, and he is one of the few who can do that and get away with it.  By some extraordinary talent – seemingly part insight and part intuition – Kafka paints a chic, rugged, ironic New York City, just after the turn of the century, with a timid self-confidence that is quite convincing.  Like Dickens’s America in Martin Chuzzlewit, Kafka’s America is a land of as much disappointment as fulfillment, and the influence of Europe is not so distant as it first appears.

We are introduced to Karl Rossmann, packed off to America by his parents that did not want to pay support for his child.  By chance, Karl runs into his wealthy uncle and an instant step up the social ladder, but this is not to be for long.  He eventually finds himself on the hunt for a job, with the added disadvantage of his youthful age and lack of experience.  If that weren’t enough, despite his hard work and good intentions Karl earns the ill will and grudge of a host of his superiors, placing him perilously close to the wrong side of the law.

That Amerika lacked some of the Kafkaesque magic of his European novels did not surprise me.  What did (more pleasantly) surprise me was the overall lighthearted tone of the book, at least in relation to The Trial or The Metamorphosis.  One of the reasons I find Kafka worth reading is his unique approach to dark themes, but Amerika was in this sense less remote and more human.  The relationship between Karl and his parents, and between Karl and Therese, was quite likely the first positive portrayal of an interpersonal relationship by Kafka I’ve read, and subsequently those were a couple of my favorite parts.  My other favorite scene was the conversation between Karl and the student who works by day and studies by night (“Oh, as for sleeping!” said the student, “I shall sleep once I’m finished with my studies.  As for now, I just drink black coffee . . . where would I be without it.”)

Karl is, indeed, a somewhat Dickensian hero, and though as is typical he appears to be based on the author, he is one of Kafka’s more likeable protagonists.  Wikipedia describes Karl as having been “seduced” by a housemaid, but as it is actually described, it sounds like he was a naive fifteen year-old assaulted by an almost middle-aged woman.  His prospective career as an engineer being over, he has to start all over again in America; yet everywhere he turns, he is harassed and swindled by obnoxious, domineering people.  His hard work and best plans rarely pay off.  Unlike “K.” from The Trial or The Castle, Karl does try his best to be successful, and I actually felt kind of bad for him. 

The translation I read is the 2008 translation by Mark Harman.  It seemed good to me.  I was particularly glad to see the conversation paragraphs (no paragraph breaks between characters’ lines) preserved; at first it’s a pain to read, but it’s classic Kafka and essential to his style.  Something important to note that the book was left unfinished at the time of his death, so the story ends abruptly.  There is some risqué behavior by various characters, so as usual with Kafka, I give this an older readers (17+) rating.  

4 out of 5 stars for Amerika.

Four (more) short reviews

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane
The Remains of the Day 
Kazuo Ishiguro
4 out of 5 stars
This award-winning novel is about an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who takes a road trip in the English countryside.  Though he attempts to keep a travelogue, he ends up reminiscing about his father, his friendship with housekeeper Miss Kenton, and his former employer’s role in the Inter-War/WWII era.

The book is pretty good, but I enjoyed the Anthony Hopkins film more.  His portrayal of Mr. Stevens is really moving, whereas book!Stevens is harder to like or understand.

 
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Washington Irving
5 out of 5 stars
I knew the story already (from the Disney animated film), but it was a delight to read the original!  Ichabod is a rather egotistical, materialistic guy in the book, so one hardly feels sorry for him.
 
A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
 2 out of 5 stars
This book was really well-written, with some interesting depictions of the British Raj, but that’s about it.  I didn’t like the characters much, including but not limited to Mrs. Moore.  (By comparison, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a lot deeper and more vague, yet somehow easier to understand.) I’m not exactly sure what was the point of A Passage to India, although as an illustration it is ok.
Kafka’s Selected Shorter Writings
from ManyBooks.net
 5 out of 5 stars

This is a nice read for Kafka fans or readers who just want to sample his work.  The stories are very short (in fact, I believe the Gatekeeper story is an excerpt from The Trial).  Recommended if you have a half-hour to spare!