Kafka: Soderbergh's Sophomore Jinx

After the breakthrough of “sex, lies and videotape,” Soderbergh made the visually striking but intellectually vapid “Kafka,” a wannabe noir thriller that inadvertently gave credence to the theory of sophomore jinx.

A paranoid thriller, whose style was deliberately artificial and narrative structure rambling, “Kafka” felt much more like a first film than “sex, lies and videotape.”

Shot in black and white, with an impressive international cast, it was neither a biopicture nor a mystery. Hampered by a conventional plot, “Kafka” is not stylized or radical enough to convey the outsider status of Kafka the man as a modern, troubled Jewish intellectual.

Lem Dobbs disappointing script, which has been around for at least a decade, describes Kafka (played by Jeremy Irons) as a mild and quiet insurance company clerk, who lives a routinely ordered life; at night, he writes stories for esoteric magazines. At his vast, impersonal office he is oppressed by a snooping overseer (Joel Grey) and criticized as a "lone wolf" by his boss (Alec Guinness).

When a series of murders plagues the city, a police inspector (Armin Mueller-Stahl) begins an investigation. Through some puzzling events, Kafka finds himself with a briefcase bomb on a secret mission to an ominous castle where a fascistic government resides.

Failing to evoke Kafkas literary world, Soderbergh’s melodrama evokes old film styles. The tone vacillates between art film, absurdist comedy, horror movie, and self-conscious thriller. Placing Kafka in a Prague, a sinister milieu that echoes the author's fictional universe, proved to be a gimmick.

As the Newsweek critic David Ansen pointed out, conceptually, the story is schematic, and the artist’s portrait is too shallow to qualify as a convincing evocation of a complex psyche or paranoid mind.

The villain is named Murnau (after the noted German director who worked in Hollywood, too) and the shadowy black-and-white imagery is an obvious homage to German Expressionism.

A pastiche composed of borrowed parts, the most obvious influence is “The Third Man,” in location as in Cliff Martinez's score, starring Orson Welles, who directed “The Trial,” a flawed but interesting film based on Kafka’s writing.

Ironically, Soderbergh succeeds better in the last reel, when he switches to color in depicting the castle, which seems to hold the secrets to the murder mystery. The production design here recalls Terry Gilliam’s cult film, “Brazil.”

In the titular role, Jeremy Irons, who had just won the Best Actor Oscar for “Reversal of Fortune,” is miscast and/or misdirected. For one thing, despite make-up, he is still way too handsome and robust to portray the frail, slender, sickly Kafka.

“Kafka” was released by Miramax on December 4, 1991, in time for awards considerations. However, grossing only $1,059,000 at the box office, it a major disappointment after the success of his debut, “sex, lies and videotape.” Admittedly, no follow-up could have matched the high quality (and critics expectations) of that stunning debut.