(In German; English subtitles)
Labyrinth” is a very specialized, intellectually bracing investigation of the connection between the fictional world of Franz Kafka and the historical persecution of the Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. Rarefied subject and structural format that makes it feel rather like a one-man theater piece will prevent this from going very far on the international art-house circuit, but fests and venues favoring Jewish-themed subjects should take note.
Framing his intense drama with recitations of the human rights denied to Jews under the Third Reich, vet Czech helmer Jaromil Jires creates the alter ego of Maximilian Schell as director taking up residence in Prague to prepare a film about Kafka.
Living in a small apartment overlooking a labyrinthine cemetery, Schell announces that he is looking for Kafka’s “Rosebud” and feels compelled to conduct abundant research since he is not Jewish.
This takes him back, via re-creations and, eventually, archival footage, through the mistreatment and persecution of the Jews dating from the 13th century, then on to a succession of Jewish rituals as represented by incidents in the life of Kafka’s family.
Kafka stated that he was never able to find the answers to his deepest questions in Judaism and pic moves into more surreal and gripping territory as Schell/Jires tries to link the origins of the writer’s feelings of persecution with his artistically unique expression of them.
Staging scenes of Nazi inquisition and torture, for example, in a manner that evokes famous passages in Kafka’s fiction, Jires posits Kafka as a prophet of–or sort of pre-witness to–the Holocaust.
Provocatively, in this reading, Kafka saw what his fate would have been had he lived; he previewed and articulated the horror of totalitarian tyranny and genocide before anyone else did. In this sense, then, his paranoia was fully justified.
For audiences interested in Kafka and Jewish history, “Labyrinth” provides some food for thought and a reasonably stimulating point of view. But its focus is so narrow as to border on the academic and obscure, and the absence of any characters in the normal sense gives the viewer only Schell’s inquiring mind to latch onto. This is fine for some but will leave others out in the cold.
Film is quite beautifully made, and Schell outstandingly varies his moods and readings so as to sustain interest in what amounts to a solo performance. Christopher Chaplin, a son of Charlie, stands in effectively in the largely symbolic role of Kafka.