Defiantly not a biopic, Steven Soderbergh’s first outing since he burst on the scene with sex, lies, and videotape places the literary world’s first alienated man in a sinister Prague, c. 1919, echoing author’s fictional universe. But the story ultimately feels too conventional, and the portrait of the artist is too shallow to stand as a compelling or convincing evocation of a complex mind.
Penned more than 10 years earlier, Lem Dobbs’ script tells of a mild-mannered insurance company clerk who, by night, writes strange stories for little-read magazines. Although somewhat antisocial, Kafka (never Franz) lives a relatively routine, orderly life.
Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is introduced to a group of anarchists by another co-worker (Theresa Russell), and although he rejects their overtures to him, Kafka is increasingly drawn into a maze of intrigue through an array of puzzling circumstances. Soon the femme co-worker disappears, and Kafka finds himself with a briefcase bomb on a secret mission to the dreaded Castle.
The villain of the piece is not named Dr Murnau (Ian Holm) for nothing. The old-world setting and exaggerated visual style readily recall German Expressionism. Although shot on the virtually unchanged streets of Prague, and despite some strong staging of individual scenes, Kafka is, finally, too normal. Ironically, Soderbergh scores his greatest visual coup when, 74 minutes in, he suddenly switches to color, a la The Wizard of Oz, upon Kafka’s penetration of the castle.
Irons acts Kafka’s bewilderment expertly but never truly seems like a pawn of society. Nice one-dimensional character turns are put in by the distinguished men in the cast, but Russell, with her untempered US accent, and flat readings, sticks out like a sore thumb.