Karlovy Vary Curators  Hollywood’s “Kafkaesque” Cinema 5

When it comes to celebrated Czech writer Franz Kafka, filmmakers the world over have long been inspired to either adapt his work outright or make movies that are decidedly “Kafkaesque,” filled with the kind of angst, alienation and absurdity the made the novelist one of the most prominent and distinctive figures in 20th century literature.

Now, a century after his death, Prague-born Kafka will be the subject of a film retrospective at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which will include titles from Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini and Steven Soderbergh. “It’s amazing the way this writer [Kafka] has been able to influence not only literature, but cinema for so many years,” Lorenzo Esposito, co-curator of the retrospective along with Karlovy Vary artistic director Karel Och, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The retrospective will include such classics as Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962), which cast Anthony Perkins as the bewildered office bureaucrat Josef K.Martin; Scorsese’s Kafkaesque New York dramedy After Hours (1985); Fellini’s Intervista (Interview); Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991) and its 2021 re-edit Mr. Kneff — both starring Jeremy Irons as a set-upon insurance man and writer — alongside lesser-known adaptations like Jan Němec’s Metamorphosis, a German TV movie.

For Esposito, what set Kafka apart was a unique understanding of the human condition and how challenging — and absurd — living in the modern world can be. “In the end, what is truly disturbing about Kafka, and what brings him so close to all of us, is not only that he clearly understood the political and economic structure of the world we live in, but he understood also our powerlessness to change it,” he argues.

Karel Och talked about the Kafka retrospective from his office in Prague within footsteps of where the great Czech writer lived and worked: “I’m sitting here 200 meters from where Kafka was born and 400 meters from where he wrote his most famous books. So the festival is so much connected to where Kafka was living, walking around, writing, spending time with his family, with his friends. So, if we don’t do it, who else?” Och explains.

The KVIFF retrospective, entitled The Wish to Be a Red Indian: Kafka and Cinema, is divided into film adaptations and movies influenced by Kafka’s literary works. The line between adapting a Kafka work by making a movie out of it, and taking elements from a story to craft your own movie, is thinner than the Karlovy Vary audiences might expect.

Esposito points to one of the KVIFF sidebar picks, Fellini’s Intervista, which has often been interpreted as an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika novel, published in 1927. Not so, he adds, as the Italian auteur had in fact been at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios preparing to adapt Kafka’s literary work, only to turn the film into a surreal mix of documentary, autobiography and a film within a film after becoming the subject of a film where a Japanese TV crew interviewed Fellini about his life and movies while on set.

Another retrospective title, L’Udienza (The Audience), a 1971 film by director Marco Ferreri, had originated as an adaptation of Kafka’s 1926 novel The Castle, about a man battling against soul-crushing bureaucracy. That’s until the Italian director realized he would have to pay to adapt the classic novel. “He [Ferreri] believed there weren’t any rights holders,” Esposito recounts, which led to the plot of the movie being changed to become the story of a young man with the crazy idea to go to Rome to meet the Pope.

In another instance of “based on” becoming “inspired by,” Esposito recalled David Lynch once turning Kafka’s touchstone novella The Metamorphosis — the story of a man who wakes up to find himself turned into a giant cockroach – into a screenplay, only to decide to not make the film “because he said the book was too good to make a film.”

But Lynch’s respect for Kafka’s literary work extended to the iconic TV series Twin Peaks, including an episodic scene set in the office of FBI director Gordon Cole, played by series co-creator Lynch, where a portrait of Kafka is clearly seen framed and placed on the wall.

The Karlovy Vary retrospective is timed for the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death in June 1924. Soderbergh will be in Karlovy Vary to introduce his two versions of Kafka, says Och: “Two different edits of the same material shot in Prague in the early 1990s.”

It’s only owing to his friend Max Brod, who defied Kafka’s deathbed request to burn his literary works, that the world has known great writing like The Trial, The Castle and the short story The Metamorphosis, as source material for movies. Ochs argues Kafka’s literary works and the movies they inspired between 1954 and 2017 speak volumes about our own turbulent times.

“If you think about the style of Franz Kafka’s writing, and the way he depicts the relationship between people and the way he perceived reality around him and through his writing, it’s timeless,” he says. “But it feels very accurate compared to our times because of the confusion and the fact that times seem to be a bit more aggressive than they used to be. Kafka was very sensitive, and if you are sensitive nowadays, your sensitivity gets attacked from so many places and elements. So it is kind of violent, and the fact that he dealt with it through his words is fascinating and very, very modern.”

Adds Esposito: “[Kafka] simply speaks about something that affects us everyday, about happiness and unhappiness and we can all understand this, especially nowadays, during these very violent and tragic days we are living through, with wars and a lot of death.”

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