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‘Kafka’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 07, 1992

A movie about Franz Kafka? It's a good idea for a microsecond. Then it dissolves into a dumb proposition. Something about the adaptative foolhardiness of such an undertaking. Something about its sophomoric aspect. Kafka was for those adolescent years when you thought to yourself, "Hey, the world's dehumanized and unfair." Then you started working for a living. It got worse: You understood your teachers, your parents, your boss and all your authority figures.

None of these thoughts occurred to director Steven Soderbergh. You recall the over-serenaded director of "sex, lies, and videotape." The Europeans gave him the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Now he's giving you "Kafka." Technically, this movie's about a fictional character called Kafka who lives in Prague in 1919, working for an insurance company. And actually, it was scripted by Lem Dobbs before the "sex, lies" thing. But Soderbergh took on this project, so he gets the rap.

Whatever the merits or demerits of its idea, "Kafka" doesn't work anyway. Soderbergh and Dobbs take this meandering story down the scenic, cobbled streets of Prague. They lead it down ironic, never-ending corridors. They entrap it in grim, gray office space. Yet they take it nowhere.

Soderbergh mistakes trappings for substance. The movie's shot almost completely in black-and-white. It has important actors in it such as Jeremy Irons and Alec Guinness. It plays like an art film. You know: heavy, deep, important, foreboding, symbolic, inscrutable. Forget it. "Kafka" is about nothing except Soderbergh's desire to make "Kafka."

Here's what "happens": Jeremy Irons is Kafka, minding his own business when his friend (Vladimir Gut) shows up dead. Inspector Armin Mueller-Stahl seems unduly suspicious of him. Suspecting foul play, Irons investigates on his own. He talks to his late friend's girlfriend (and fellow office worker) Theresa Russell, who runs with anarchists after hours. He connects with Jeroen Krabbe, a sympathetic gravestone carver. All clues lead to the Castle, a monolithic tower that presides menacingly over the city, contains vital records on everything and seems to be the center of big-brotherly activity. With Krabbe's help, Irons discovers an underground route that takes him right into the building's bowels, where he will encounter industrial evil and man-behind-the-curtain Ian Holm.

Kafka themes are everywhere, from the imposing Castle, to Irons's tense relationship with his father, to the bureaucratic tyranny of his office. Irons is also a published writer. Krabbe congratulates him on "that story about the penal colony." When a group of friends ask him what he's working on lately, Irons replies, "Oh, a thing about a man who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect."

With his memorably harassed demeanor, Irons makes a perfect all-purpose Kafka antihero. He also gives the movie more authority than it deserves. There is some amusing comic business when Irons -- inexplicably -- is assigned twin-brother assistants Keith Allen and Simon McBurney. Incompetent bumblers, they disagree on everything and are of no assistance whatsoever. "It's not our fault," explains one. "We're naturally nervous." It's also gratifying to see gaunt monkey Joel Grey again, this time as a time-conscious, petty tattletale. But, if the best thing Soderbergh did was to assemble all these talented people, the worst he did was put them in this uninspired movie.

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