Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Kafka Films!

In this what I hope will be one of several posts where I list films influenced or based on the work of a writer. I will begin with Franz Kafka, whose work has been subconsciously influencial on a lot of science fiction and metafiction films. Next I hope to explore the influence of William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard on films by David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, The Coen Brothers and others.

Franz Kafka, born July 1883 in Prague was one of the most influential writers of the 20th (and 21st) century. Not quite a science fiction or horror writer, but perhaps writing Magical Realism, his stories can be adapted to both of the previously mentioned genres and that other unknown, unnameable story type. His most popular books include The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle. Although David Lynch has yet to direct a version of The Metamorphosis, those other two books of Kafka's have been adapted in one way or another on film, which is the topic of this blog.

In 1962 Orson Welles directed a cold, comical and almost precise adaptation of The Trial.
(It was also made into a made-for-tv film starring Kyle Maclachlan and Anthony Hopkins, currently unavailable on DVD).
  The Welles version is stripped down to Kafka's basics. It comes off like a minimalist stage play, filmed in tight quarters and desolate locations. This cold monochromatic atmosphere best captures the tale of Joseph K. and his arrest and prosecution for a crime that goes unnamed. This film is a great example of low-budget, high concept movie making.

This will be a small list, not just on movies based on Kafka's work (or life in the case of Kafka) but movies influenced and embodying his writings.
  Next up: Brazil. Never has there been such a blatant homage to the paranoia and neurosis of a Kafka epic. In Terry Gilliam's film we have a lead character that resembles many of Kafka's heroes, a deteriorated and corrupted society, a dysfunctional bureaucracy and a bleak ending. At least Gilliam was kind enough to give us an ending, where most Kafka novels  end abruptly without a proper conclusion. In fact what Gilliam experienced during the filming of Brazil is akin to what any Kafka protagonist would suffer to see his vision through.

Dark City, from 1997, also maintains a secretive and mysterious vibe when a character wakes up one day and doesn't remember who he is and finds a trio of pursuers after him. The setting is dark and bleak, a more surreal Blade Runner. Nothing is as it seems. There is a secret society called The Strangers (could have easily been the title of a Kafka story) that wishes to understand why they cannot influence this lone man when they have control over the city and its people. In the end the lead character overthrows them and saves the "city". Before The Matrix (which in some ways shows influences of Kafka), there was Dark City.

Although David Lynch's The Grandmother and The Alphabet have a thematic relation to Kafka, I think it would be David Lynch who could ever do justice to The Metamorphosis. But since he hasn't and probably never will film it, I want to submit Eraserhead into the sweepstakes of Kafka-inspired (though not directly), best representing the surreal and sublime atmosphere of his work.
  This bleak and gray film works best if experienced as a dream, even a Jungian vision; the explorations inside the wasteland that is Henry Spencer's deteriorated mind. The creature in the film, that is to say the baby in the movie, is a manifestation of inner fears and paranoia and I can imagine that had Franz Kafka lived in a different period and country, this is the kind of story he would have written. Perhaps if Kafka had had access to LSD, Eraserhead is what his version of The Metamorphosis would have been like.

La Cite des Enfants Perdus (City of Lost Children) is just bleak and dystopian enough (though beautiful) to qualify an entry into Kafka films. It has darkness, grime and suffering children to make it a distorted and surreal children's story with disturbing elements. A blighted ambience imbues this film, which at times has a sepia tone. This gives it a morose and soiled atmosphere where the characters exist. The kind of landscape that may have inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, which also bears a close resemblance to this Jean-Pierre Jeunet film.

12 Monkeys is another Kafka-realized film. Directed by Terry Gilliam it descends from the line of two of his previous films, Time Bandits and Brazil, 12 Monkeys coming off as a spiritual sequel to both of those films. Bleak and dystopian, Kafka is best represented (in 12 Monkeys) by the futuristic bureaucratic society falling apart at the seams and the covert group that dictates the mission that Bruce Willis' character must complete. Along the way he sees his own death, meets some crazies, falls in love, spends time in an asylum. But as it always was with Kafka, the hero never wins and the needs of the one are drowned out by the needs of the many.

  Also of interest are Kafka by Steve Sodeberg, Das Schloss by Michael Haneke (also made in 1968 by Rudolf Noelte). Any suggestions would be welcomed.

No comments: