© 1991 Baltimore Pictures

Kafka (1991)

Steven Soderbergh’s second film Kafka was released at a good time for me. I had just discovered the writings of Franz Kafka, which I was reading obsessively. I had also started to watch films in a more critical way, due in part to Soderbergh’s second film sex, lies and videotape. I was also soon to be old enough to get a 10-year passport, and not long after watching Kafka four times in a mall multiplex cinema, I dropped everything and went to Prague, where Franz Kafka lived and where this film was shot.

I watched the film today because I have been watching every Jeremy Irons film I can get my hands on, mostly just to enjoy to enjoy his accent and flawless enunciation. Watching it again after having seen so many hundreds of films in the interim, I realize what a brilliant script the film has.  I remember when this was first released, many critics were somewhat surprised that Soderbergh, coming off of the huge unexpected success of his first film, would choose such an inaccessible idea for his sophomore effort, and indeed this was failure at the box office. In retrospect, we can see the pattern of Soderbergh’s career alternating between highly commercial blockbusters such as Oceans 11, and the projects he really wants to work on.

One of the things that must have attracted him to this project was the excellent screenplay by Lem Dobbs. While an original work, it borrows many elements from Kafka’s oeuvre, especial the novel The Castle, and many lines of dialogue are taken directly from various Kafka stories. There are also parallels to Kafka’s life, such as him working at a large insurance firm, and anarchists attempting to recruit him to write for their revolutionary pamphlets (something that happened when the real Kafka was still a university student, though it is much later in the film). At the same time, most of the plot has nothing to do with the real Kafka, who never got involved with anarchist capers, smuggling bombs into governmental offices and chasing down mad scientists. Franz Kafka preferred to stay home in the evenings and write. One of great strengths of the script is that it is also a traditional thriller in the vein of The Third Man or The 39 Steps, and can be enjoyed by viewers who never heard of Franz Kafka or read a word of his fiction.

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