1 item from 1991
''Kafka, '' Steven Soderbergh's first film since ''sex, lies, and videotape, '' is a self-conscious and artsy fictional foray into both the real and dream worlds of Franz Kafka. A distinguished and able cast headed by Jeremy Irons; beautiful, mostly black-and-white cinematography; and the enchanting Prague backgrounds make for a diverting feature-length eyeful and earful, but the reconstruction of the Kafkaesque worldview never quite takes.
The film's plot plays more like a Hammer horror outing, with shock piled atop unexpected shock, than a tale from Kafka's eerie imagination, in which a disturbing and even violent set-up gives way to an even more disturbing, but madly sedate, destructive logic.
The film discovers Kafka (Irons) at work in the bureacratic confines of the Accident and Insurance Compensation Assn., where he spends his days processing innumerable papers under the watchful eye of the nitpicking supervisor Burgel (Joel Grey).
Disturbed by the absence of his friend, Eduard Raban, Kafka chats up his woman friend, Gabriela (Theresa Russell), a fellow employee who habitually rebuffs male attention. However, pursuing her to her regular cafe haunts, he discovers her outlawed anarchist circle, in which Eduard was also enlisted. Kafka comes to realize that Eduard must have disappeared in the ominous castle that towers over the city and which seems to be the repository of some secret activity run by his employers.
Late one night, with the help of a sympathetic grave cutter (Jeroen Krabbe) who has read some of his few published pieces, Kafka breaks into the castle through a secret tunnel.
While all this is going on, the city is being afflicted by a series of mysterious murders which, we see, are being carried out by shrieking, deformed madmen. These two plot strands intertwine when Kafka finally reaches the laboratory of the evil, monster-making Dr. Murnau (Ian Holm). In the film's only color sequence, Kafka uncovers the doctor's mad plot to control humanity and destroys him and his intricate machinery.
Whatever the film may fail at, it is a triumph of production design. Gavin Bocquet has whipped up a dark symphony of spaces, from closet-like garret rooms to huge regimented office space to Murnau's literally eyepopping laboratory, the last a stunning bit of design virtuosity.
The acting is similarly accomplished. Sir Alec Guinness, who harrumphs no more than a handful of lines, draws a stark picture of a paper-shuffling autocrat.
Grey and Krabbe are authentically colorful and Holm brusquely evil, while Russell manages to be both attractive and harsh. In such company, Armin Mueller-Stahl manages to stand out as a wearily alert policeman investigating Raban's death. Irons is as beguiling as ever, though his Kafka is considerably more possessed of English drollery than middle European irony.
The problem rests entirely in Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs' conception of Kafka and his vision, which they reduce to a slightly supercilious social stance. Kafka is trapped all right, but not in one of his own visions, but a pulp adventure story.
Director Steven Soderbergh
Producers Stuart Cornfeld, Harry Benn
Writer Lem Dobbs
Director of photography Walt Lloyd
Music Cliff Martinez
Production design Gavin Bocquet
Casting Susie Figgis
Kafka Jeremy Irons
Gabriela Theresa Russell
Burgel Joel Grey
Dr. Murnau Ian Holm
Inspector Grubach Armin Mueller-Stahl
Bizzlebek Jeroen Krabbe
Chief clerk Alec Guinness
Running time -- 98 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
(c) The Hollywood Reporter
1 item from 1991
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