At the Movies with Franz
Or why Kafka never wrote a screenplay
By Christina Ball

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 2000


INTERIOR. 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...

EXTERIOR. 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...

What 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.

Given 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.

Was 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?

The 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.

The 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 list:

Dark 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.

Kafka 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 image-viewing machines.

But 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.

A 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?

Despite—or 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 Kafka.

One 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 feeling."

At 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.

Kafka 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 in.

Kafka 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.

As 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 to say."

Like 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.

Although 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).

Memories 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.

If 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?

Perhaps 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."

Instead 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.

Not 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.

Future 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.

If 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 and all.