A Grab Bag Of Gothic Styles

One of the remarkable things about Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" was that it didn't call other films to mind. In his debut film, the writer/director spoke with a voice clearly his own. Kafka is another story. Written by Lem Dobbs (more than 10 years ago), filmed in Prague in shadowy black-and-white images that nod to German expressionism, this paranoid thriller feels much more like a first film than Soderbergh's actual first film. It's composed almost entirely of borrowed parts, the most obvious influence being Orson Welles's baroque "The Trial," the most recent Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." It's easy enough to understand the temptation that lured Dobbs and Soderbergh to re-create a filmic style they love (who doesn't?), but "Kafka" is a surprisingly tepid and stiff pastiche.

Making Kafka himself the hero of a "Kafkaesque" thriller proves to be little more than a gimmick-the movie has no interest in exploring the writer's psyche or the details of his life. As played by Jeremy Irons, he's a diffident insurance clerk who gets caught up in a murder mystery, becomes entangled with a gang of anarchists and ultimately ventures inside the ominous bureaucratic Castle (here the film turns to color), where the crypto-fascist horrors of governmental power are spelled out with a literalness that probably would have appalled old Franz himself and that will strike any viewer over 20 as old hat.

Soderbergh's talent is not in doubt; you can see, in the often elegant images shot by Walt Lloyd, a real filmmaker at work. But his choice of material is dubious. Instead of speaking in his own voice, he's rummaging through the Gothic attic of old film styles. Trying for a tone somewhere between an art film, an absurdist comedy, a horror movie and an old Saturday-matinee serial, he's made a handsome, cripplingly self-conscious thriller that's devoid of any real thrills. The impressive cast-Irons, Ian Holm, Alec Guinness, Armin MuellerStahl, Joel Grey, Jeroen Krabbe and the miscast Theresa Russell--can't breathe any life into the movie, for none is allowed in the film's deliberately artificial style. One wants to be seduced by "Kafka's" atmosphere, but the mystery refuses to resonate. It's applique Kafka-decorative expressionism.

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