Kafka is a mystery thriller 1991 film based on the life and work of writer Franz Kafka. The film attempted to blur the lines between the surreal and the real, creating a Kafkaesque atmosphere thereby. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Lem Dobbs, and stars Jeremy Irons in the title role along with Theresa Russell, Sir Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbé, Joel Grey, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Sir Alec Guinness.
Jeremy Irons ... Kafka
Theresa Russell ... Gabriela
Joel Grey ... Burgel
Ian Holm ... Doctor Murnau
Jeroen Krabbé ... Bizzlebek
Armin Mueller-Stahl ... Grubach
Alec Guinness ... The Chief Clerk
Brian Glover ... Castle Henchman
Keith Allen ... Assistant Ludwig
Simon McBurney ... Assistant Oscar
Robert Flemyng ... The Keeper of the Files
Matyelok Gibbs ... Concierge
Ion Caramitru ... Solemn Anarchist
Hilde Van Mieghem ... Female Anarchist
Jan Nemejovsky ... Mustachioed Anarchist
Independent Spirit Awards
1992 Won Independent Spirit Award Best Cinematography Walt Lloyd
1992 Nominated Independent Spirit Award Best Screenplay Lem Dobbs
Although Lem Dobbs follows what James Hawes referred to as the ‘Kafka Myth’ in his book Excavating Kafka, presenting a solitary, withdrawn figure, rather than the sociable and charming figure Kafka apparently was, he combines elements of the author’s life with nightmares from his fiction.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.
Kafka Trashed by US Critics
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.
Kafka and the Misery Myth
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 script 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.