Academic journal article Post Script

Soderbergh's Kafka: In Retrospect

Academic journal article Post Script

Soderbergh's Kafka: In Retrospect

Article excerpt

"To interpret a text is not to give it a meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate the plurality that it constitutes."--Roland Barthes S/Z

I.

Adapting Kafka for cinema is a complicated and improbable venture--a bit like Fitzcarraldo's romantic dream of building an opera house in the Amazon jungle. Like the romantic entrepreneur of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1984), who must drag a steamship over a mountain in the Peruvian rain forest unaided by modern technology, a filmmaker can only hope to transfer Kafka's burden of cryptic dream-texts into cinematic language with a daring feat of transposition. In Herzog's Fitzcarraldo the technological feat of transference --dragging the ship over a mountain--is miraculously realized, but the impresario's greater, messianic dream of transferring European culture to the Peruvian jungle is ultimately sabotaged by native superstition. Perhaps Steven Soderbergh's Kafka (1991) has suffered a similar misfortune. After his wildly successful first feature, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), a debut that established the mainstream viability of "indie" cinema in the 1990s, the follow-up Kafka drew mixed reviews. While the debut film enjoyed critical acclaim, including the Palme D'Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, Kafka was perceived by many as a disappointment. Voicing a view held by many other reviewers, New York Times critic Vincent Canby bluntly called the screenplay "a mess" and the resulting film "shallow," merely "Kafka-ish," rather than genuinely "Kafkaesque" (Canby). Among North American reviewers the widely-held consensus was that Soderbergh had reduced a hallowed literary icon to mere cinematic ornamentation for a retro-styled thriller. Soderbergh responded, slightly bemused: "I was not able to foresee the possessive attitude toward Kafka of certain American critics. That an American would consider Kafka an icon seems a bit strange to me" (Kaufman 48). The European reception of Kafka was decidedly more favorable, a response Soderbergh ascribes to a less "iconic" perception of Kafka: "Curiously," comments Soderbergh, "people [in Europe] seem more open than in the States to the liberties we took; they are less protective of Kafka's image" (Kaufman 51). American critics, however, insisted that the main flaw of the film was its failure to convey the "Kafkaesque," that sense of menace and paranoid dread thought to be the essential "mood" of Kafka's fiction. As one critic puts it, Soderbergh's Kafka fails to evoke any "real sense of being caught in what people call 'the Kafkaesque nightmare,' the sense of a protagonist being trapped in a world that operates by rules he is not privy to" (Scheib). Nevertheless, the independent film community greeted Kafka with approbation. It was nominated that year by the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay and won for Best Cinematography (DP Walt Lloyd).

The scholarly literature on Kafka also offers a more positive appraisal. Donna Hoffmeister praises Kafka for "its pervasive and playful allusions," which in her view "create an ingenious web of intertextuality which constitutes, finally, a worthy analogue to those literary texts which inspired the film" (14). In his book-length study of Soderbergh's films, Jason Wood considers Kafka "an accomplished work on almost every level, a film that, despite previous critical protests, comes complete with a palpable sense of menace and unsettling paranoia." "Shamefully beleaguered on release," thinks Wood, "Kafka is certainly worth revisiting and stands as an impressive achievement" (32). Following the initial wave of negative criticism, Soderbergh sought understandably to distance himself from Kafka, writing it off as a youthful journeyman's piece. Two decades later, in retrospect, we are now better positioned to appreciate this early film, not only for what it has to say about Kafka, but also for what it tells us about the development of Soderbergh as auteur and, more broadly, for what this film implicitly communicates about the postmodern crisis of authorship and our current conceptions of the auteur. …

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