Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Castle

Franz Kafka left "The Castle" unfinished, and I can understand why: written in breathless run-on sentences and paragraphs that often stretch across four or more pages, it unfolds like a delirious piece of automatic writing that ends mid-sentence, as if Kafka simply had no idea what Gerstäker's mother should say and simply stopped there. Chapter breaks were determined retroactively, and the centerpiece of the novel is an extended monologue that stretches across three chapters. I read the novel in anticipation of seeing Michael Haneke's 1997 adaptation, made for Austrian TV (like all of his films before The Seventh Continent [1989], a body of work that was shown last year at a retrospective in New York and about which I know nothing), and while reading Kafka's prosafragment (as it's referred to in the film's opening credits), I tried to keep myself innocent of Haneke's film, avoiding pictures or cast lists (the only actors likely to be familiar to North American audiences are the late Ulrich Mühe from The Lives of Others [2005] as K. and his real-life widow, Susanne Lothar, as Frieda, who played an insane piano mom in Haneke's La Pianiste [2001]; they also played the married couple in Haneke's Funny Games, made the same year as The Castle, though I haven't been able to determine which came first). It seemed to me an almost impossible task to adapt Kafka's prose into cinema, for a number of reasons: the dreamlike sense of space and time, metaphysical doubts and, of course, Olga's monologue all get lost in the translation. For a time I wondered if Haneke wouldn't have to restructure the narrative completely in order to accommodate Olga's story; instead, he reduces it to a few sentences, and in the process, he seems to miss the main point of the story: that the gentlemen never actually responds to Amalia's rejection, and therefore, may not have been offended by it at all. Similarly, when Pepi/Birgit Linauer offers an alternate interpretation of K.'s relationship with Frieda, in the novel it's a scene akin to the climatic sequence in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) where Zeigler/Sydney Pollack gives Bill Harford/Tom Cruise an alternative version of the previous night's events, and K.'s rejection of Pepi's hypothesis effectively throws the matter back in our laps, since both versions seem equally valid. However, unlike the extended seventeen-minute sequence in Kubrick's film, in Haneke's The Castle, because Pepi's story isn't given that kind of weight, we're more likely to view it as the idle daydreaming of a naïve girl, and by capping the scene with a close-up of Pepi's tearful expression, Haneke places the emphasis on K.'s shattering of her illusions. I suspect the only filmmaker who could've done justice to the story's ambiguities is another Austrian-born director and one who, like Kafka, was a trial attorney: Otto Preminger--except that Preminger's fiercely objective long shots and moving camera are the opposite of Kafka's subjective delirium. (Although the film preserves much of Kakfa's prose through the off-screen narrator/Udo Samel, like the dialogue, it's abridged in such a way that the tone is subdued.) In theory, it seems natural that the director of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) and Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown: An Incomplete Account of Several Journeys) (2000) would be drawn to the fragmentary nature of Kafka's novel, but the unfinished "The Castle" is actually a model of fluidity, and the sudden cuts to black which Haneke uses in many of his films simply correspond to the chapter breaks in Kakfa's prosafragment, rather than signifying a narrative ellipsis, and the mid-sentence ending consists of K. and Gerstäcker/Wolfram Berger walking through the snow in one of the film's many right-to-left tracking shots, while the narrator calmly recites the last few sentences Kakfa wrote. If anything, Haneke did a better job of capturing Kafka with his original screenplay for Funny Games, which builds its scenerio one step at a time with insidious logic, and the two villains using language more than force to exercise control over the situation. Indeed, while K.'s two assistants, Artur/Frank Giering (who played one of the villains in Funny Games) and Jeremias/Felix Eitner, in the novel recall the villains in Funny Games, in the film they're more sympathetic and funnier. In the novel, it's easy to accept that the assistants are difficult to tell apart--and in addition to that, easier to tell apart when seperated--but in the film, where they're played by actors who look nothing alike, we're more likely to conclude that K. is treating them rather poorly. And while in the novel, a scene in which the superintendant's wife, Mizzi, looks for a piece of paper in a cabinet has a nightmarish quality to it, with a seemingly endless number of pages flying out of the cabinet, in the film, the assistants' attempts to put everything back in its place--juxtaposed with K.'s conversation with the superintendant--is played for physical comedy. And indeed, the asssistants in the film are funny (I especially love their high five), while in the novel, we're more likely to share K.'s irritation with them. (Conversely, in Funny Games, the villains think they're funny when they're not and Haneke knows this.) Still, Haneke and his art director, Christoph Kanter, have done an impressive job of building the village of Kafka's novel, which is at once medieval and futuristic; the movie's village is a bit more bunker-like than I would've thought, though I admired certain details not found in the book, like a 1950's radio in the inn where K. spends his first night. One interesting ommission is that Haneke never shows us the Castle, while in the novel, K. is able to see it in the distance after the fog lifts, and Barnabas/André Eisermann gives him a detailed description of the offices that's missing from the film. Also missing is Klamm, who K. spies through a peephole

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