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'Kafka' Turns Author Into Sleuth

Director Steven Soderbergh creates inventive thriller with a literary twist

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This doesn't mean the picture has nothing but amusement on its mind, however. "It makes statements about the manipulation of the individual by the state," Soderbergh says. "The idea of being sucked into a kind of faceless conglomerate or bureaucracy is really terrifying."

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The issue of "complicity" also runs throughout the film, he adds. "There are a couple of points when Kafka has to confront his complicity in this oppressive world. He finds out that if there are evil forces, you may be working for them; it's all together, it's not just something out there.... And then there's the issue of deciding at what point one will act. Kafka is very intent on hiding behind his desk, but eventually he feels forced to act against something he's almost certain will crush him."

The presence of such "significant subtexts," as Soderbergh calls them, reflects his conviction that films should play a positive role in society. "I definitely feel movies have a responsibility," he says. "I don't think I could make something I felt was entirely worthless in a societal context." Although his films contain some violence, he maintains that it's not gratuitous, but rather illustrates "forces and pressures" that must be dealt with by concerned people.

What movies by other filmmakers does Soderbergh admire? He mentions the movies of Hollywood master Howard Hawks, which have a versatility he'd like to emulate. Beyond this, he's enthusiastic about European art films and Hollywood blockbusters. "Looking at the films I've made - all two of them - I can see ... that I grew up as influenced by 'Last Year at Marienbad' as by 'Jaws.' There's this sort of European sensibility in my films, but also this desire to entertain."

As for current films, he praises "JFK" for its forthrightness. "When was the last time you went to a movie that was just political, period?" he asks. "In which statements were made that have your ears flapping? I thought that was exciting because it's been a long time."

What will Soderbergh be doing in the future? He has two projects on the drawing board, both rooted in the American past. One is based on a novel about growing up in St. Louis during the early 1930s. The other is a sports comedy about the beginnings of the National Football League in the 1920s.

"It's about when football went from being an improvised sandlot game to being a business," the filmmaker explains, "and what was lost and what was gained. It has a very Damon Runyon feeling with hotels, trains, muddy brawls, and guys running around the field with no pads."

But significant subtexts will play a part here, too. "It has an agenda beyond the comedy aspect," Soderbergh says. "It's a very indirect way to make comments on the commercialism of sports - which is something I have very strong feelings about."