EARLY EVENING. The bedroom of a small apartment
in central Prague. 1913. A man, a boyish 30, sits
at his desk, pen in hand, dark-eyes staring intently,
almost furiously, at a blank sheet of paper. On
the table: a single lamp, several opened letters
neatly stacked, a tower of books (Goethe, Tolstoy,
Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard). Just as he is about to
put pen to paper, the silence is broken by sounds
of clanking dishes, a man shouting in baritone,
a young girl's pleading voice. The writer looks
towards the two closed doors on either side of him,
puts his hands over his ears, stares at the ceiling,
rearranges the books and letters, draws a stick-figured
man with his head on a desk, puts down his pen...
NIGHT. A shadowy street in Prague. The silhouette
of a man—tall and lanky in a long coat—seen
approaching from a distance. The man stops in front
of a ticket booth. A marquee above reads, in German,
"MOVING PICTURE HOUSE". The Man disappears
into the theatre...
happens after this is pretty much a mystery. For
the writer in this scenario, Franz Kafka, had surprisingly
little to say about the new cinematographic art
which was sweeping Europe and the rest of the modern
world during his lifetime. Hundreds of thought and
emotion-stained pages in his diaries and letters
record his impressions of literature, dramatic theatre,
art exhibitions, even near awe-inspiring encounters
with subways and airplanes in Italy and France.
But fine-tooth his writings in search of "Kafka's
notes on film", and a curious void will present
itself to you. A void which is alone perhaps
a sign that you have entered Kafka's
world. A world which, for all our desire to claim
it as our own, as quintessentially modern, universally
"Kafkaesque", continues to assert its
own unique logic.
the vivid, visually descriptive nature of Kafka's
prose, the bizarre, dreamlike architecture of his
fictional world and his noted interests in technologies
both real and imaginary, one would expect to find
ample evidence of his fascination with and involvement
in cinema's art. Add to this assumption the fact
that he lived in a time (1883-1924) and a place
(German/Czech Prague) when films were being made
and viewed with increasing productivity, popularity
and, especially after the war, quality, and his
silence becomes even more puzzling.
Kafka immune to the influence of motion pictures?
Surely he must have played a role in the making
(or at least viewing!) of films like those of the
revolutionary Weimar Republic, films which have
so often been compared to his writings because of
their portrayal of distorted realities, madness
and parable. And didn't Kafka write the screenplay
for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?
sense of an inherent compatibility between Kafka
and film is only heightened by the numerous films
he unknowingly inspired. These films fall into two
basic categories. In the minority are those films—Orson
Welles' The Trial, Rudolf Noelte's
The Castle, Stephen Soderbergh's Kafka—which
are, more or less, directly adapted from (a shocking
few of) Kafka's writings.
second category, much more pervasive and generic,
could be characterized as—what else?—"Kafkaesque."
In other words, any motion picture containing one
or more of the following elements: (1) The protagonist,
usually wrongly accused of some crime, struggles
in vain to master the laws of an enigmatic or somberly
bureaucratic world; (2)Any surreal or paradoxical
situation, enhanced by appropriate sets and visual
effects, in which the relationship between dreams—or
nightmares—and reality is reversed or blurred;
or, (3) Any film in which the human protagonist
transforms into a giant insect...! To catalogue
this group of films would be a Kafkaesque experience
in itself. In case you don't believe me, a random
City, Shadows and Fog,
Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club,
Character, Naked Lunch,
Being John Malkovich, The Matrix.
Thriller, Psychodrama, Film Noir, Horror, Comedy,
Science Fiction. Hitchcock, Lynch, Kubrick, Burton,
Bergman...Good Heavens! Not only a hero of modern
literature, Kafka's is a ubiquitous presence haunting
the motion picture imagination.
did go to the movies. This much is certain. Especially
in the years before the war and before his deteriorating
health left him virtually bed-ridden, Kafka was
a frequent visitor to cinemas in Prague and Berlin.
No stranger to machines, he was familiar with early
image technologies—mutoscopes, kinetoscopes,
nickelodeons. In a letter to his on-again, off-again
fiancée, Felice Bauer, he even mentions an
invention (or "business idea") of his
own, a combination Parlograph and typewriter, which,
if ever produced, would be placed alongside these
judging from the few, uncharacteristically nonchalant
references Kafka did make, movies were little more
than a distraction, a diversion, and a bit of mindless
entertainment for Kafka. Kind of like television
today. Entertaining, sure, yet hardly the stuff
to inspire much thought or creative expression.
For that there was literature, with a capital L.
Or dramatic theater, like Max Reinhardt's inventive
adaptations of Shakespeare. Arts based not on the
image, but on the written Word, and thus somehow
closer to the Truth.
fact of film history comes to its own defense. That
Kafka viewed motion pictures and literature as completely
unconnected entities is partly due to the kinds
of pictures he would have primarily watched: crudely-made
silents with soap-opera storylines geared to please
a mostly uneducated and unemployed audience. (The
more experimental, better-made, predominantly Expressionist
films—The Last Laugh, Waxworks,
Metropolis, The Golem,
Caligari—didn't emerge until
after 1919, along with Kafka's tuberculosis). A
hard-earned degree in Law, a demanding job at the
Workers' Accident Insurance Institute and a body-and-soul
commitment to the vocation of writing made Kafka
into quite the atypical ticket buyer. To a man who
lived—and died—for literature, these
moving images of voiceless, wordless actors had
little to say. A few, poorly written intertitles
could hardly be considered poetry, and Kafka had
no sympathy for music. So why did he go?
perhaps because of their mindless quality—an
evening at the movies, in the pre-VCR era, meant
a momentary escape from the noise and anxiety of
the apartment Franz shared with his notoriously
domineering father (one of Kafka's best characters),
his passive mother, his three younger sisters and
a maid or two. More importantly, movies saved him—if
all too briefly—from the torments of being
diary entry from 1913 reads, "This evening
tore myself away from my writing. Movies in the
National Theater." Another from the same year
begins: "Was at the movies. 'Lolotte'. The
good minister. The little bicycle. The reconciliation
of the parents. Was tremendously entertained. Before
it, a sad film; 'The Accident on the Dock', after
it, the gay 'Alone at Last.' Am entirely empty and
insensible, the passing trolley has more living
the movies, Kafka could temporarily turn off the
dreams playing incessantly in his head, and suspend
the overwhelming temptation to give written form
to his disturbing visions. Although they evidently
brought him some pleasure (a rare experience for
a man who claimed he hated "everything that
isn't literature"), movies didn't bring him
any closer to life, or to his own humanity. They
didn't change anything. As soon as
he returned to his room, the demons would be there
waiting, right next to paper and pen. Demons that,
for all the pain and suffering they caused him,
gave his life both a meaning and a mission.
is celebrated, in part, because he suffered so much
for his art. But in many ways, his suffering was
his art. The two were inseparable. As characters
like Gregor Samsa, the Hunger Artist and Josephine
the Mouse can testify, Kakfa wasn't interested in
pleasure. He was after a kind of superhuman truth,
which could be accessed only through higher levels
of consciousness, bordering on the divine—or
the demonic. Only by willfully denying himself of
virtually all sensual and social pleasures—food,
sex, marriage, conversation, music and
movies—was it possible to even approach the
door of the Law, and, perhaps, be allowed to peer
saw the writer as the scapegoat of Mankind. Through
his own solitary suffering, the writer makes it
possible for men, other men that is, to enjoy sin
without guilt. Like the condemned in his "Penal
Colony", who die a slow death by having their
sentences inscribed on their bodies by an intricate
execution machine, Kafka found in writing torture,
enlightenment, and the silent promise of redemption.
A machine that makes pictures—however powerful
and potentially moving—just couldn't compete.
Kafka's trials were destined to be played out not
on the silver screen, but inside his own head and
in the pages which were, despite his dying requests,
miraculously saved from destruction.
a writer, Kafka's lack of serious interest in movies
and his borderline skepticism were typical of the
times. How could a medium that was barely a few
decades old expect to compete with the tried and
true, millennia-old virtues of literature and theater?
At such an early date, the unique, yet hybrid language
of cinematography had yet to be defined. As Virginia
Woolf remarked in an essay entitled "The Movies
and Reality": "While all other arts were
born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully
clothed. It can say everything before it has anything
Woolf, many writers viewed this new kid on the block
as a kind of parasite, feeding unnaturally off of
literature, transforming all its hard-earned thoughts,
ideas, symbols and subtleties into eye-catching
trivialities. Writers were the motion picture's
toughest critics. About Fritz Lang's Metropolis
(1926), a film now regarded as a science-fiction
masterpiece, H.G. Wells had this to say: "It
gives in one eddying concentration almost every
possible foolishness, cliché, platitude and
muddlement about mechanical progress and progress
in general...I do not think there is a single new
idea." The fact that motion pictures were,
to an increasing degree, commercially driven, didn't
help to up their artistic ante.
his silence makes it tough to say for sure, chances
are that, like Woolf and Welles, Kafka would have
viewed the film, particularly the silent film, as
a young and inferior "art" with little,
if any, value beyond entertainment. Without words
and living, breathing actors, how can meaning be
communicated? In another letter to Felice(3/4/13,
Kafka recalls being unusually upset by a photograph
of renowned theater actor, Albert Bassermann, in
a poster for the movie Der Andere
(The Other One). In Berlin a few years
prior, Kafka had seen—or, he stressed, "heard"—Bassermann
in a moving interpretation of Hamlet.
Evidently, the actor's speech affected Kafka so
much that he lost his composure and "for whole
quarter-hours, actually had another person's face."
(Postcard from Berlin to Max Brod 12/9/10).
of this theatrical epiphany made the photograph
of Bassermann more mute and lifeless than it already
was. "Faced by the photographs, my pleasure
diminished at once, for one can see it is a wretched
film; the situations featured were simply old-fashioned
cinematic devices, and, after all, a snapshot of
a horse in action is almost invariably beautiful,
whereas a snapshot of a criminal expression on a
human face, even Bassermann's, could well be meaningless."
In a simple and somehow prophetic way, this passage
reveals both the positive and the potentially negative,
de-humanizing uses and abuses of photography. It
also suggests a distinction, in Kafka's mind, between
"wretched", old-fashioned films and those
of a presumably higher quality and expressive potential.
With the absolute demands he placed on himself as
a writer, how could he be satisfied with anything
less? Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if Kafka willed
the moving pictures into speech.
I could, I would invite Kafka to a private screening
of some of the films he never had the time to see.
And I would eavesdrop on his thoughts. Would he
acknowledge the potential of cinema to depict the
different states of mind and levels of consciousness
he tried to capture in his fiction? Would he see,
as so many others have, a connection between his
peculiar form of madness and the one imaginatively
reconstructed in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(1919), or would he be as disappointed as H.G.
Wells was after seeing Metropolis?
After a screening of F.W. Murnau's parable of shame,
The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann,
1924), would Kafka at least consider the potential
of film to capture, in a visual style as fluid and
pure as his own fiction, the shift between subjective
and objective states or worlds? Would talkies make
him see—and hear—something more human
and meaningful in film, as he did in theater? At
my insistence, would he recognize in the protagonists
and absurdly meaningful situations of Woody Allen's
films—Zelig, Shadows and
Fog, Deconstructing Harry—his comedic
double? And what, I am almost afraid to ask, would
run through Franz Kafka's mind as he watched his
own fictional writings projected on the giant screen?
Would he be able to momentarily suspend criticism
in favor of "thumbs up" pleasure? Would
he be honored by the attention? Amazed by the virtual
realities? Or would he storm out of the theatre
in disgust, cursing himself and executor Max Brod
for failing to cremate his entire oeuvre?
for the better, the outcome of my hypothetical evening
at the movies will remain shrouded in darkness.
But I do want to offer a small, but potent bit of
evidence as final food for thought. In a letter
to his editor, Kurt Wolff, young Franz expressed
concern about an illustration which was to appear
on the title page of his "Metamorphosis":
"You recently mentioned that Ottomar Starke
is going to do a drawing for the title page of Metamorphosis...It
struck me that Starke, as an illustrator, might
want to draw the insect itself. Not that, please
not that! I do not want to restrict him, but only
to make this plea out of my deeper knowledge of
the story. The insect itself cannot be depicted.
It cannot even be shown from a distance."
of a picture of a giant beetle, Kakfa had a more
subtle suggestion for the artist: "I would
choose such scenes as: the parents and the head
clerk in front of the locked door, or even better,
the parents and the sister in the lighted room,
with the door open upon the adjoining room that
lies in darkness." In other words, less is
more. The illustrator agreed. So, I bet, would Hitchcock.
one to make demands, especially on a fellow artist,
Kafka couldn't resist exerting his creative control
on this occasion. He feared the power of pictures
to reduce the meaning and metaphor of Gregor's transformation
into something frightfully literal and banal.
filmmakers should not be discouraged by this. Films,
when made thoughtfully, are certainly one way of
grappling with his puzzling, multi-dimensional writings.
Besides, Kafka can take it. But if a single frontispiece
caused him such concern, just imagine his reaction
to an entire motion picture, not to mention hundreds
of them. Not that, please not that! An
absurdity only Kafka could appreciate. Which is
probably why the dialogue between Kafka and film
is destined to continue for a good long while.
it does, I hope the next film I see will sacrifice
nightmarish special effects and Kafkaesque clichés
in favor of heightened realism, irony, and even
subtle humor. A film that, like Kafka himself, will
keep us guessing until long after the end. Perhaps
the ultimate master of suspense, Kafka promises
to keep us glued to our seats—popcorn, paperback