Kafka was made as part of a spate of Kafka adaptations/homages that came out all in the space of around two years in the mid-1990s. These also included a new version of The Trial (1993), the 1993 restoration and re-release of the Orson Welless The Trial (1962), a Czech adaptation of Amerika (1994), two versions of The Castle (1994 and 1997) and Woody Allens comedic homage Shadows and Fog (1992). Kafka is not so much a Franz Kafka biopic as it is akin to Wim Wenders Hammett (1983) or maybe Time After Time (1979), which had H.G. Wells building his own time machine and hunting Jack the Ripper, wherein the authors biography and fiction are blurred together. Kafka vaguely touches point with some images of Kafkas stories a castle over the town, sinister police interrogations. Equally though, Kafka is not very conversant with Franz Kafkas biographical details one of the most pertinent facts about Kafkas life was that all his works were published posthumously and he regarded them as worthless, while the film has them published and people commenting on them.
Kafka was the second film from Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh then only had the international arthouse hit of Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) to his name. Someone in fact Barry Levinsons Baltimore Pictures had clearly thrown a good deal of money at Soderbergh, as evidenced by the distinguished name cast he manages to array. Alas, the idea went astray and Kafka was a big flop and received almost universally mediocre reviews. None of Steven Soderberghs subsequent films The Underneath (1995), Grays Anatomy (1996) and Schizopolis (1996) raised much enthusiasm from audiences either and for a time Soderbergh seemed to only be a one-hit wonder. However, in the late 1990s, Soderbergh found his second wind and bounced back to considerable form and critical acclaim with the impressive, coolly intellectualised likes of Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Oceans Eleven (2001) and Solaris (2002).
In Kafka, Steven Soderbergh occasionally hits upon a Kafka-esque atmosphere of paranoid uncertainty, of protagonists being trapped in a world that operates on rules beyond their understanding. However, the addition of two annoyingly buffoonish assistant clerks played by Keith Allen and Simon McBurney tends to topple the Kafka-esque mood over into something more resembling Pinter-esque Theatre of the Absurd. Soderbergh generates some decent intensity in the scenes where a madman bursts in through a bathroom and chases Jeremy Irons down through the elevator but there is never a sense of being caught in what people call the Kafka-esque nightmare, the sense of a protagonist being trapped in a world that operates on rules they are not privy to.
The film bursts into colour for the climactic venture into the castle. Here Soderbergh peculiarly turns Kafka into a mad scientist film of sorts, although what Ian Holms scientist is actually trying to achieve is never made clear. Soderbergh and scriptwriter Lem Dobbs, who also wrote Dark City (1998) and Soderberghs The Limey) also cannot quite resist the modern temptation to place Kafka alongside German Expressionist cinema, thus we get references to the Orlac claim (after The Hands of Orlac (1924) about a pianist who found he was being possessed after receiving the transplant of a murderers hands) and a Dr Murnau (after F.W. Murnau the director of Nosferatu  who was immortalised in Shadow of the Vampire ).
Jeremy Irons, excellent actor that he is, is miscast playing Kafka. Jeremy Irons is far too handsomely intense the sense of the person you get reading Kafkas work and biographical portraits is of someone mousy and anonymous. What one imagines the role of Kafka to be like would be something more akin to John Hurts portrayal of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984).
The production has certainly been beautifully mounted. There is an excellent music score. The film was shot on location in Kafkas home turf, Prague, which has been exquisitely photographed in black-and-white and lends a wonderfully shadowy sinisterness. Ultimately though, Kafka amounts to surprisingly little. You are never sure what the mad scientist elements and the German Expressionist homages are meant to mean. While Steven Soderbergh achieves a dour, occasionally paranoiac mood, Kafka is a film that feels like it has been elaborately contrived without any real point.
Steven Soderberghs other film of genre interest as director are the remake of Solaris (2002), the viral outbreak film Contagion (2011) and the horror film Unsane (2018). Soderbergh also wrote and produced the English language remake of Nightwatch (1998). Soderbergh has also produced a number of films, including the genre likes of Pleasantville (1998), Christopher Nolans remake of Insomnia (2002), the time travel film The Jacket (2005), Richard Linklaters Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006), the ghost story Wind Chill (2007) and the evil child film We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011).
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