A man runs through the streets of the city in the dead of night, desperate to escape, but as he takes refuge in an alleyway he is attacked by a ravaged-looking, laughing man (David Jensen) under the direction of his master (Brian Glover). The victim was a colleague and friend of desk clerk Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) who is dismayed the next day not to see him at his desk as he is picked on by his supervisor (Joel Grey) once again. Wondering why his friend has disappeared, Kafka can't shake the feeling something sinister is afoot, and tries to get information out of his prickly fellow worker Gabriele (Theresa Russell). However, the more he discovers the less he knows...
After director Steven Soderbergh enjoyed a hit with Sex, Lies and Videotape, many people were keen to see what he would follow it up with; what they were not anticipating was a fictionalised merging of the life of Kafka and his works into a weird, murkily plotted chiller, and as a result the film was not warmly received. Scripted by Lem Dobbs, it paints the celebrated writer as a romantic loner rather than a downtrodden outcast, who drafts his stories at night and is stuck in a boring office job by day, but the actual creation of his works are largely ignored - instead they are adapted for a realisation of his own peculiar world with self-conscious references to The Trial and The Castle and throwaway comments concerning writing a story about a man turning into an insect.
The cast assembled for all this is undeniably impressive, and they all seem to get the joke. Unfortunately, the plot takes an age to get off the ground, as Kafka is slowly, very slowly, embroiled in a consipracy that has something to do with the forbidden castle at the heart of the city. The body of his friend is dragged up from the river by the police, represented by Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who sends for Kafka to identify the corpse, and he gets to know Gabriele and her accomplices, who it transpires are a group of anarchists intent on blowing up the castle to strike back against the as ever unseen authorities.
As well as the cast, the film has its cinematography to its advantage, resembling as it does a black and white expressionist effort from the nineteen-twenties, for most of the film, at least. But the Kafka character makes for a passive protagonist, buffeted by the events and people around him. He will every so often be called into the office of his boss (Alec Guinness) to be told of progress, or lack of it, in his standing, but all this bureacracy seems to have been included for its dubious faithfulness to the real man's books instead of propelling the narrative forward. Nevertheless, Kafka secures his promotion and gets two ominously playful assistants to order about.
But it's what's going on in the castle that concerns him as he regards this as the key to the deaths and vanishings that are occurring. After being chased by the laughing man himself, Kafka embarks on a night of intrigue, helped by mysterious but benign stranger Jeroen Krabbé who claims to have read all his stories. It's here the film makes an unlikely reference to The Wizard of Oz, as when he emerges from a drawer in a wall of filing cabinets, the screen turns to colour. And the menacing wizard is Dr Murnau (Ian Holm), who reveals what is really going on (or does he? It's difficult to tell). Filled with arresting imagery such as its protagonist crawling over a magnified projection of an exposed brain, Kafka has a stifling atmosphere that reduces its paranoia when it should be expanding it, more Kafka-ish than Kafkaesque, but is weird enough to be striking in its own manner. Music by Cliff Martinez.
Versatile American writer, director and producer whose Sex Lies and Videotape made a big splash at Cannes (and its title has become a cliche). There followed an interesting variety of small films: Kafka, King of the Hill, noir remake The Underneath, Schizopolis (which co-starred his ex-wife) and Gray's Anatomy.
Then came Out of Sight, a smart thriller which was successful enough to propel Soderbergh into the big league with The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Oscar-winning Traffic and classy remake Ocean's 11. When Full Frontal and his Solaris remake flopped, he made a sequel to Ocean's 11 called Ocean's 12, material he returned to with Ocean's 13. Che Guevara biopics, virus thriller Contagion and beat 'em up Haywire were next, with the director claiming he would retire after medication thriller Side Effects and Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. He returned after a period of even greater activity with heist flick Logan Lucky and his first horror, Unsane.