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‘Kafka’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 07, 1992

Perhaps Steven Soderbergh's metamorphosis from clever Cajun auteur ("sex, lies, and videotape") to heavy-duty Eastern European angst-master has been altogether too successful. Like authentic Soviet Bloc cinema, "Kafka" makes its audience suffer along with its heroes -- some tortured by the state, others by their own self-loathing and still others by running sores. Giant dung beetles have more fun in their line of work. Alas, there are no scene-stealing big bugs in "Kafka," an onerous literary thriller that puts the Czech author in another of his fictional nightmares -- "The Castle," whose title edifice becomes part of the movie's dreary Prague.

Jeremy Irons is planklike as the protagonist, a thoroughly dull chap who, like the real Kafka, clerks for a state-run insurance agency by day and writes for himself by night. When a colleague at the agency disappears, Kafka listlessly investigates. After walking slowly through many long hallways and many dark streets, Kafka uncovers a repressive police state dedicated to stifling individualism. As Irons portrays him, Kafka's not paranoid, he's paralytic.

Irons's plodding performance is offset, but hardly relieved by, the antics of Kafka's twin assistants -- a pair of totalitarian cut-ups who don't look a thing alike (Brian Glover, Keith Allen). Various sparks are struck by Joel Grey as the office snitch, Theresa Russell as a bovine anarchist, Sir Alec Guinness as a fatherly figurehead and Armin Mueller-Stahl as an off-putting detective. But Soderbergh, with director of photography Walt Lloyd, has managed to create a backdrop of spark-snuffing gloom.

Lloyd, who rejoins Soderbergh after "sex, lies, and videotape," pays homage to the Oscar-winning cinematographer of "The Third Man" in "Kafka's" angular black-and-white footage, just as screenwriter Lem Dobbs echoes its structure in his screenplay. The effect is artistic, but it's also obvious when the material cried out for unsettling. Both the best and the worst thing you can say about "Kafka" is that it isn't Kafkaesque. Say what?

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