'Kafka' Turns Author Into Sleuth

Director Steven Soderbergh creates inventive thriller with a literary twist

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

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."

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."

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