'Kafka' Turns Author Into Sleuth
Director Steven Soderbergh creates inventive thriller with a literary twist
MOVIE screens are filled with writers nowadays. And most of them have writer's block - from the plaintive hero of "Barton Fink," who can't get his new screenplay off the ground, to the spaced-out William S. Burroughs character in "Naked Lunch," whose typewriter keeps turning into an insect and scuttling off across the floor.Skip to next paragraph
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Now they're joined by the title character of "Kafka," played by Jeremy Irons in a new film by Steven Soderbergh, whose "sex, lies, and videotape" made him a directorial superstar.
"Kafka" has encountered a snag or two - most notably a public squabble between Mr. Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs, who wrote the screenplay and didn't appreciate all the changes made in his script during production.
Soderbergh says the disagreement has been smoothed over. In any case, the movie is now in the hands of critics - reviews have been mixed - and audiences, who may not realize from the title that "Kafka" isn't a self-conscious art film but an inventive thriller with a literary twist.
"My intent was to make a piece of entertainment at which you have a good time, or at least an interesting time," Soderbergh said in a recent interview. "Maybe calling it 'Kafka' was a mistake, since there's been a lot of crossed signals - people expecting something else, and being irritated that it's not more literary. I assumed Kafka had become a generic term, like Kleenex, and that the prologue would clue everybody in that this story isn't real!"
It certainly isn't. The story focuses on Franz Kafka not as a legendary author, but rather as his acquaintances might have known him in real life: a quiet, hard-working man who spends more time at an insurance-company desk than poring over his brilliant manuscripts. Then one of his office colleagues abruptly disappears, and Kafka's efforts to solve this mystery draw him into a web of intrigue and a conspiracy that seems Kafkaesque even by Kafka's high standard.
Almost everything in the picture is stylized or downright fantastic, set against a brooding Prague background filmed in shimmering black-and-white until the climax, which leaps into dark-toned color. The film often seems derivative of Orson Welles's great Kafka movie, "The Trial," and other sources (such as "Island of Lost Souls," based on an H. G. Wells novel) also announce themselves from time to time.
Soderbergh contributes a quirky visual sensibility to the tale, though, plus a great deal of energy. And it's fun to watch the efforts of a first-rate cast including Mr. Irons as the hero, Alec Guinness as his boss, Theresa Russell as a feisty anarchist, Armin Mueller-Stahl as a police inspector, Joel Grey as a nosy coworker, Jeroen Krabbe as a funereal friend, and Ian Holm as a mad scientist.
In filming the story, Soderbergh saw it as a divertissement rather than a chilling Kafkaesque vision, and viewed the hero as an ordinary guy. "Jeremy felt he was more of a Fred than a Franz," the director says, explaining Irons's approach to the character. "The film explores themes that Kafka addressed ... but it's really Kafka as he usually portrayed himself in his fiction."