A handsomely mounted, well made film thatís otherwise total nonsense.
Purporting to be about Franz Kafka and featuring some distinguished
actors, itís a thoroughly misconceived project thatís alternately boring
KAFKA (1991) was the second film by director Steven
Soderbergh, following up his monumentally successful 1989 debut SEX,
LIES AND VIDEOTAPE. The two films couldnít be more different, and taken
together showcase a mercurial personality who likes to work in as many
styles and genres as he possibly can. This brings up the question of
whether Mr. Soderbergh really should be so freewheeling in his
choice of subject matter, as itís become abundantly clear over the years
that his talents donít encompass the horror or sci fi genres.
To be sure, Soderbergh has made some wonderful films
(including TRAFFIC, BUBBLE and the shamefully neglected KING OF THE
HILL), but also many crappy ones (including the interminable OCEANíSÖ
trilogy and the excruciating SOLARIS remake). KAFKA falls into the
Franz Kafka is a lowly insurance worker. Heís hoping to
break out of his dull existence by writing stories like one he has in
the works about a guy turning into a giant insect.
A cackling madman is on the loose, murdering seemingly
anyone he comes across, while at the same time Kafka finds himself drawn
into a loopy mystery when a co-worker is killed. Kafka is lured to a
nighttime meeting of a group of bomb-throwing anarchists led by the
seductive Gabriela, another co-worker. The group believes a massive
cover-up is being conducted by the overseers of the Castle, a secretive
environ at the edge of the city from whence the cackling killer emerges.
Kafkaís investigations invariably lead to the Castle.
Insinuating his way inside, Kafka finds a bunch of corrupt scientists,
led by the evil Dr. Moreau, conducting scary experiments involving a
giant telescope and peoplesí exposed brains. Kafka disrupts the process
and runs off, narrowly escaping with his life.
This experience is apparently so impacting that Kafka
is inspired to give up his obsessions and neuroses (in other words,
everything the real Franz Kafka stood for) and stop writing his freaky
fiction in favor of reassuring prose, to ďmake our living and dying a
little bit easier.Ē
Steven Soderbergh has talent, as he demonstrated in
SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, and shows once again that he knows to set a
scene like nobodyís business. The cinematography of Walt Lloyd, much of
it in black and white, is luminous and evocative, and the production
design equally so in recreating the majesty of early 20th
Outside those things, however, thereís just not a whole
lot here. Yes, many heavyweight actors share the screen (Jeremy Irons,
Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guinness), but none
manage to distinguish themselves. Among other things, the performances
are hampered by the fact that nearly every actor speaks in a different
accent. Thereís also the problem of
Theresa Russell in the female lead, who
(as usual) appears to be performing in an entirely different movie than
This film isnít merely bad but also insulting to the
life and art of the Franz Kafka, who Jeremy Irons allegedly plays.
Despite occasional biographical allusions to Kafkaís life (at one point
Kafka asks a cohort to burn his manuscripts should he die, a request he
actually made to his friend and eventual literary executor Max Broad)
and fiction (THE CASTLE in particular), thereís very little about this
film thatís truly Kafkaesque. In essence itís a pretentious B-movie,
complete with nerdy movie in-jokes (characters are named Moreau and
Orlac) and dialogue like ďYouíll never reach a manís soul through a
For those interested in something authentically
Kafkaesque, Iíd recommend the 1963 Czech film JOSEF KILIAN, a striking
and accurate rendering of Franz Kafkaís surreal world in cinematic
terms. It leaves KAFKA looking like the lame student film worthy
exercise it is.
Baltimore Pictures/Miramax Films
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Producers: Harry Benn, Stuart Cornfeld
Screenplay: Lem Dobbs
Cinematography: Walt Lloyd
Editing: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe.
Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alec Guinness, Brian Glover, Keith Allen, Simon
McBurney, Robert Flemying