Prague 1919. Insurance clerk Kafka (Jeremy Irons) investigates the disappearance of his friend and colleague Eduard Rabin. Eduard was sent by his employers to The Castle, an appointment he kept, but never returned from. Gabrielle, Eduard’s lover and a member of an anarchist group draws Kafka into the mystery by trying to recruit him into her organisation.
Although Kafka rejects her offer his interest in Eduard’s disappearance is piqued. Kafka discovers others have gone missing after being sent to The Castle, including a noted surgeon, Dr Murnau (Ian Holm). Now there are strange creatures wandering the streets of Prague at night and Kafka is being followed by the enigmatic Inspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
James Hawes referred to the presentation of Franz Kafka as a solitary withdrawn figure as the ‘Kafka Myth’ in his 2009 book Excavating Kafka. Kafka was apparently a sociable and charming figure until his health began to decline. However Dobbs uses a similar approach to David Cronenberg in his William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch (1991) in the same year combining parts of the author’s life with his fiction.
Kafka did work for an insurance company and wrote through the night. There are hints in the film of his troubled relationship with his father and his inability to commit to a relationship. There are allusions to his work most notably in the presence of The Castle, which in Kafka’s fiction is unknowable, and unreachable, but here reveals its secrets, although they are fairly banal compared to Kafka’s nightmares.
Steven Soderbergh won huge acclaim and the Palme ‘D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut movie Sex, Lies and Videotape. Following up such success with his second film was always going to be difficult and making a black and white semi-fictional biopic of Franz Kafka using techniques borrowed from German Expressionism is probably asking for a kicking. Kafka was initially released in the US in 1991, but it would be another three years before it briefly turned up in a handful of UK cinemas.
Although Kafka is regarded as a miserabilist his writing is often very funny. The masterful short story ‘The Rebuff’ is barely half a page long, but skewer’s the romantic longing of both sexes with a perfect aim. The preference for films about, or based on work by ‘serious’ writers, and few are taken as seriously as Kafka, is that they be serious.
Witness the austere and lifeless version of The Trial (David Hugh Jones 1993) with the perfectly cast Kyle MacLachlan trapped in a lousy production, just as surely as Josef K is trapped by the law. Lem Dobbs screenplay for Kafka has plenty of humour and Soderbergh has essentially placed the great novelist in a highbrow zombie film, like The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949) crossed with George Romero. Maybe this seemed incongruous to some critics, but it is closer to the spirit of Kafka’s work than they realise.