Thursday, November 06, 2014


Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh and written by Lem Dobbs, Kafka is the story of an insurance worker who finds himself in the middle of a secret war involving two underground organizations who are wreaking havoc in 1919 Prague. Inspired by the works of Franz Kafka, the film is a mixture of a mystery thriller mixed in with elements of the bio-pic as it explores the life of Franz Kafka as he is played by Jeremy Irons. Also starring Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Joel Grey, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Alec Guinness. Kafka is a mesmerizing yet very odd film from Steven Soderbergh.

The film is a very weird story where an insurance office drone finds himself in the middle of a conflict between two underground organizations in 1919 Prague. All of which plays into a world that Franz Kafka is in as he struggles to maintain a low profile and live his life only to be sucked in towards a group of anarchists trying to stop a secret organization following the disappearance of a co-worker of Kafka’s. Lem Dobbs’ screenplay uses a lot of references to the works of Kafka that adds a unique narrative that blurs the line between reality and fiction. Much of it plays into ideas of man going against the ideas of conformity as Kafka struggles with not bringing attention to himself despite getting a promotion and endure many expectations of being part of society. Yet, Kafka’s encounters with people being killed and all sorts of strange occurrences lead to questions about what is going and why there is this effort to control things.

Steven Soderbergh’s direction is very stylish as it serves as a homage to German Expressionism in terms of its look and feel. Much of it would feature slanted camera angles as well as some unique compositions to play into the sense of style that would also recall something that is visually-enthralling its look and setting. Shot partially on location in Prague, the film has this feel of something that feels like a world in transition where a new world order is emerging but with elements of the old world where there are still rules. The film opens with a chilling scene of a man being chased by this crazed psychopath as it would set the tone of what is to come. Much of Soderbergh’s compositions include some unique close-ups and medium shots while his approach to wide shots for some of its interior settings are entrancing to watch.

While there’s a few elements in the film that don’t work such as the bumbling assistants who work for Kafka following his promotion. It’s Soderbergh trying to inject bits of humor in a film that is quite serious though some parts of that humor involving a friend of Kafka in Mr. Bizzlebek (Jeroen Krabbe) does work as he is a very effective character. Serving as his own editor, Soderbergh does play into the Expressionist style in a few of the dissolves along with some jump-cuts to play into the drama and suspense. The film’s climax involves a brief sequence where it adds to this element of surrealism where the film is shot in color to showcase the world that Kafka has to penetrate as he sees what they’re about. Overall, Soderbergh creates a very stylish yet evocative film about a man dealing with the constraints of society.

Cinematographer Walt Lloyd does amazing work with the film‘s black-and-white cinematography with its use of lightings and shadows for many of the interior and scenes at night while the brief use of color in its climax is very potent. Production designer Gavin Bocquet, with set decorator Joanne Woollard and art director Leslie Tomkins, does fantastic work with the set pieces from the file rooms as well as the bar that Kafka goes to as well as the strange world inside the mysterious castle. Costume designer Michael Jeffrey does excellent work with the period costumes to play into that look of German Expressionism with its suits and hats for the men as well as the dresses that the women wear

Sound editor Larry Blake and sound designer Mark A. Mangini do superb work with the sound from some of the sound effects that occur in the anarchists‘ secret base to the underground lair that is the secret castle. The film’s music by Cliff Martinez is great as it features bits of electronic music with its low-key synthesizers along with some offbeat pieces with the use of pianos and instruments that play into the sense of the times.

The casting by Susie Figgis is brilliant for the ensemble that is created that includes notable small roles from David Jensen as the psychotic killer, Brian Glover as a henchman in the castle, Maria Miles as a former fiancee of Kafka, Robert Flemyng as keeper of the files, Keith Allen and Simon McBurney as the idiotic assistants of Kafka, and Ian Holm in a terrific small role as the mysterious Dr. Murnau who is seen at the film’s climax. Joel Grey is wonderful as the office supervisor Mr. Burgel who often looms over Kafka to do his work while Alec Guinness is excellent as the insurance director who often asks Kafka about his social life and lack of determination to rise up the corporate ladder.

Armin Mueller-Stahl is superb as Inspector Grubach who investigates the mysterious disappearances as he often asks Kafka about the case and what he thinks happened. Jeroen Krabbe is fantastic as Mr. Bizzlebek as this bar patron who always has some very funny theories as he is likely the only real friend that Kafka has. Theresa Russell is amazing as Gabriela as a co-worker who was the lover of the man who was killed as she is a secret member of the anarchist group as she tries to get Kafka to take part because of his non-conforming persona. Finally, there’s Jeremy Irons in a remarkable performance as Franz Kafka where he plays it straight as someone who is very reserved while dealing with this secret conflict he didn’t want to take part in as it’s a role filled with humility as well as someone who is aware of what it means to be human.

Kafka is an excellent film from Steven Soderbergh that features a fantastic performance from Jeremy Irons. While it’s a film that refuses to define itself into any genre, it is quite compelling in its visual style as well as theme of conformity and individuality. In the end, Kafka is an extraordinarily odd yet rapturous film from Steven Soderbergh.

Steven Soderbergh Films: sex, lies, & videotape - King of the Hill - The Underneath - Gray's Anatomy - Schizopolis - Out of Sight - The Limey - Erin Brockovich - Traffic - Ocean's Eleven - Full Frontal - Solaris (2002 film) - Eros-The Equilibrium - Ocean's Twelve - Bubble - The Good German - Ocean's Thirteen - Che - The Girlfriend Experience - The Informant! - And Everything is Going Fine - Contagion - Haywire - Magic Mike - Side Effects - Behind the Candelabra - Logan Lucky - (Unsane) - (High Flying Bird)

The Auteurs #39: Steven Soderbergh: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2

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