Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
Steven Soderbergh hit it big with his first full feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape. With a budget of just over a million dollars, the film raked in over $24 million, and won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. From there, Soderbergh basically had his pick of whatever project he wanted to make.
Kafka (1991) was is follow up feature, a wonderfully directed piece starring Jeremy Irons as a fictionalized Franz Kafka, who is involved in a nefarious, paranoid scheme similar to those in Kafka’s own works. While the film has sly references to various Kafka works and his own biography, the protagonist being Kafka in this story isn’t a necessity (nothing makes him essentially Kafka), but the touch is nice all the same. In beautiful black and white cinematography, Jeremy Irons does look a bit like Kafka, with prosthetics on his ears to amplify the effect. He plays Kafka as the investigative, yet overwhelmed protagonist caught in a web between the oppressive state and the revolutionaries seeking to destroy it.
The acting in the film is well done, with a stacked cast creating a world of eccentric, yet menacing characters. Joel Grey (oscar winner for his portrayal of the Emcee in Cabaret) plays the paper-pushing supervisor Mr. Burgel, an exemplar of bureaucratic society, while Alec Guinness plays Kakfa’s chief clerk in the office, a simple yet mysteriously authoritative character. Theresa Russell is the leader of the revolutionaries as Gabriela, a wonderful performance (for the most part), with a complementary lovely costume design. Throw in Ian Holm and other small yet memorable parts and you have a world full of delightfully intriguing characters.
What’s unfortunate about the film is that it was poorly received, to because it is inadequate, but because it was such a departure from Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Roger Ebert’s review is a good example of this, comparing the films multiple times and spoiling the aesthetic change near the end of the film. Many reviewers either did not review the work on its own terms (always comparing it to Soderbergh’s previous feature), or they didn’t get it all together (note the strange comment Gene Siskel makes saying that the film has a happy ending – this is not the case.) The film flopped at the box office, and has only ever gotten a DVD release that’s long out of print. But if you’d like to watch the film just for the great cinematography alone, the entire film has been uploaded to youtube.