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Student name: El Alaoui Sanaa

Tutor: Miklos Lojko


Course code: BBI-ANGF-201E
Submission date: 12/17/2018

‘Metamorphosis’, ‘the Trial’ and ‘the Castle’ in Soderbergh’s Kafka

Kafkaesque, a term coined to refer to anything reminiscent of the iniquitous


and darkly peculiar features of Franz Kafka’s1 notable works. On the grounds, the
desire to make a biopic and gothic melodrama about Kafka has been throbbing inside
Soderbergh, particularly after the release of his most acclaimed polemic work Sex,
lies, and video tapes2. Generally speaking, what initiates originality within filmmakers
is the potential to transform realities that they discern and inhale into an indubitable
distinct form that reflects their pneumatic force3. Owing to the tremendous interest
Soderbergh has towards Franz’s works, he managed to coalesce the paradox of reality
and fantasy and encipher them visually to accost the viewers to a certain existential
anxiety and absurdity. In view of this, the vulnerability of being alienated is a
commonplace in every individual; hence, given the predominance of alienation as a
major theme in Kafka’s works, it is inevitable that it is going to be one the weighty
themes in Soderbergh’s feature film ‘Kafka’. Explicitly distinct the ‘the
Metamorphosis’, ‘the Castle’ and ‘the Trial’ may seem, they all coalesce in this film
to form a Kafkaesque trilogy based on the story of its writer. Therefore, this essay
underlines the film’s aesthetic force based on this originative trilogy and the extent of
its comprehensiveness.
Firstly, in his novella, Franz Kafka stressed on ‘Metamorphosis’4 as a
cathartic process in which a human being undergoes a transformation into a huge
insect and how he struggles to adjust to the new condition. In view of this,

1
Franz Kafka is a Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer. His works are fuses elements of
alienation, realism, fantastic and absurdity. His best works are ‘the Metamorphosis’, ‘the Trial’ and
‘the Castle’.
2
The film is a 1989 American independent drama film that brought director Steven Soderbergh to
prominence.
3
Referring to the Greek ancient word for spirit in physiology, it is used in this essay because it is
equally important as the psyche of a human being.
4
Metamorphosis is a novella written by Franz Kafka and published in 1915. One his influential works
that tells the story of a salesman Gregor Samsa who wakes one morning to find himself transformed
into a huge insect.
Metamorphosis entails a multitude of meanings that can be deciphered allegorically
with several interpretations. In that event, the parallels between both stories in the
film and in the novella are echoed substantially in the complex nature of the father.
Both characters’ father is indifferent and contempt towards his son. In
Metamorphosis, Samsa receives no support and understanding from his father
particularly while going through the process of transformation. Provided that the
father rejects the transformation and denounces his son. By the same token, Kafka
relates his lack of self confidence and depression to his unjust father. This is evident
in the strangely sympathetic letter he wrote to him which is agonizing in its deep
resonance. In the film, fragmented shots of Kafka’s voice-over while writing the letter
reinforces our understanding that he is in constant fear of this hidden shadow. For
instance, the film ends with a closing shot of the protagonist setting at his desk by the
window writing with the hope ‘that these late, perhaps insignificant realizations might
reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier’ 5. Equally important
is the contributions of this nightmarish figure to Kafka’s development throughout his
life, especially that his father is perceived as a God-like figure. According to the
Freudian tripartite of id, ego and super ego, Kafka’s father is regarded as the super
ego that restricts Kafka’s urges6. Hence, it can be concluded that both protagonists are
living under the fear of this traumatic figure who is abusive, narcissistic and
tyrannical. Similarly, the viewers of the films can draw an immediate liaison between
the subconscious world of Samsa with that of Kafka. On one hand, both characters
suffered from anxiety and depression: the hatred of Kafka towards his workplace
reminds us of that of Samsa who suffered from his tedious life style. On the other
hand, loneliness is a major common theme between both characters. Accordingly,
both protagonists went through a transformation that rendered them as outsiders
diving into depression and alienation and living under the shadow of tyranny.
Throughout the film, Kafka is constantly perceived as an outcast, particularly in his
workplace7. However, this feeling of rejection is due to his despotic father since he

5
Franz Kafka, Franz Kafka Letter to his Father. (Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins;
revised by Arthur S. Wensinger, 1919).
6
According to Sigmund Freud, the psyche of a human being consists of tripartite system: the id, the
ego and the super ego. The super ego is the system that represents societal values and moral that are
learned from parents. It is the controllers of the id and ego. Therefore, it is the father representation in
Kafka’s case.
7
In the film, Kafka is perceived as an outcast since he knows less than the others. He does not realize
the tyranny of authorities nor the cruelty of these organizations. He also states that he never write for
claims that he never dared to defy his father’s orders to not bring a friend into his
house. Clearly, not only does the story denote heavy alienation but it also catches
obscurities. In Metamorphosis, ambiguity is casted in the anonymous force that
changed Samsa into an insect. Parallely in the film, Kafka struggles to find these
‘secret’ organizations that killed his friend, Edward. In this in mind, Kafka’s request
to his friend to maintain his works anonymous announces absurdity and obscure
sense. Ergo, the protagonist depicts his realization that death is the only solution to
man’s solemn infirmity: existential anxiety. This is evident in the light of
Freudianism8 where Metamorphosis can be regarded as an outside projection of
Kafka’s subconscious. Therefore, it can be concluded that this novella is an outthrust
of Kafka’s alter ego where he expressed his alienation projected from a man’s
existence as a major malaise going through a complicated and frustrating experience
compelled by obscurities and absurdity.

Another medium to decipher Kafka’s inner pneuma and psyche is his other
well-known novel ‘the Trial’9. The novel symbolizes the outthrust of an inner system
that describes an independent, inconsiderate and inhuman bureaucracy lacking civil
rights. What makes the film connected to this novel is the unsolved and intriguing
mystery both works project. In the film, the protagonist remains passive to this
unknown power especially by giving his consent to the inspector that Ms. Rossman
had died because of suicide. Broadly speaking, the whole film can be interpreted as a
trial of Kafka, metaphorically and literally prosecuted by unknown authorities.
Having spent adequate time in a governmental insurance agency, Kafka has learned a
lot from the law and the legal bureaucracy. He observed the obscurities while working
there, for instance, his both assistants signify strongly what the ‘Trial’ is about. They
are the real anonymous menace that he is facing the whole time. That is, the real trial
of Kafka is the credibility of truth. By the end of the film, he begins to realize whether
it is worthwhile to stay ignorant or to know the truth, provided that this truth is

others, but merely for himself. This explains why he never got promotions in the past 9 years while his
colleagues did. reverberate
8
In his book the Manifesto, Andre Breton co-conceptualized the idea of surrealism as a major key to
understanding the subconscious of the psyche. Breton was greatly inspired by the Freudian Theory of
Free Association and Automatism and he defined surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state,
by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control
exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” (Breton, 1969)
9
Published in 1925, tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested by an unknown authority because of an
unknown reason neither him nor the reader will know.
questionable at heart. All over, both works are regarded as a social critique against
these legal bureaucratic powers ruling and restricting individuals’ freedom in the
modern world10. Relatively, an equally important device that is employed to criticize
these forces is modernism. In a dialogue between Kafka and Dr. Orlac, the latter tells
the protagonist that he embraces the modern instead of writing about it and
documenting it like Kafka does. This sequence symbolizes two visions displayed by
two different men, one whose genuine self is reflected in low key black-and-white
montage and the other one presented with colored frames. This aesthetic shift from
black-and-white to the colored castle signifies a climatic shift from sensibility to a sci-
fi unreal yet modern world where evil dominates and masterminds murder through
brainwashing human beings. Another interpretation to this climax lies in the fact that
the use of black-and-white in the film provides an ambiance of conflict in the
beginning of the 20th century. It also announces the conflict between the dark ages and
the new ones. Yet, the color shift is a technique that suggests the representation of the
castle as an efficient power which is an absolute truth according to the belief of Dr.
Orlac and his spies. Although it is true that Metamorphosis denote heavily alienation,
but the Trial reflects highly on the protagonist’s seclusion as well. Both Kafka and
Joseph K. are outsiders on account of their choice to be individuals rather than
abiding by societal rules and standards. Provided that in both works authority has
control over everyone’s outcomes11. In the same manner that Joseph K. is faced with a
case that he will never win, Kafka also realizes that he is on a repressive trial where
he shall avoid truth and remain passive. Thence, Soderberg’s Kafka is a brilliant
attempt to show how a writer faces power in order to say the truth, yet this truth
remains obscure. In essence, one of the major themes in the film are disclosed when
Kafka says that he writes nightmares while Dr. Orlac creates them12. These lines
suggest the cruelty of the modern world which can also be seen in the novel. The trial
became synonymous with the peculiar isolation of the modern man in a hostile and
indifferent world governed by unknown forces13. On the other hand, both protagonists

10
In of the scene, Dr. Orlac says that "A crowd is easier to control than an individual. A crowd has a
common purpose. The purpose of the individual is always in question."
11
It is still unclear here if the authority has rule of Kafka’s outcome because initially he was summoned
to the castle yet the request was cancelled after he interfered with their works and after he managed to
destroy Dr. Orlac who manipulates people. This raises the question of who became in charge, Kafka or
authorities.
12
In the film, Dr. Orlac experiments the human’s brain to make it more efficient. Paradoxically, after
the experiment, man becomes more hostile and cruel.
13
This can be regarded as another Kafkaesque feature in Franz’s works
are participating in this trial on their free will. No one is forcing Joseph K. to attend
the hearings; he is under no compulsion to testify. Likewise, Kafka chose to find the
murderers of his friend Edward instead of submitting to the awful truth that his
attempt to die was suicidal. Furthermore, embarking on this quest to find the obscure
truth has affected both characters’ journeys; the trial began completely to subsume
their lives and has gradually distracted their works. As far as surrealism is concerned,
it is omnipresent in both works. The fact that things did not make sense in the real
world rendered the experience of both protagonists surrealistic. The trial of Kafka is
identical to that of Joseph K. since both of their lives are governed by surrealistic
lawful procedures. Therefore, the novel is as well an outside projection of Kafka’s
inner voice to stress on his denunciation of obscure yet autocratic systems that attempt
to subside individuality given its demanding nature that limits these authorities’
control.

‘Like most things the castle can look majestic, but only at a distance’, this is
how Bizzlebek introduced himself to Kafka after the latter had left Café Continental
for the search of his missing friend, Raban. In this scene, the castle is represented
from a distant point giving it a grotesque ambiance of grandeur, remoteness and
inaccessibility. In view of this, Soderbergh may have borrowed certain thematic
elements from Franz’s novel ‘the Castle’14 to add to his film the motif of the wasted
land and dominant absent authority15. The power of authority in the film is derived
from the absence of these officials who grant themselves the potential of
inaccessibility, provided that it is the force that establishes their robust existence16. In
both works, the protagonists are embarking into a quest to find the ultimate
unattainable truth under the governance of remote figures. Soderbergh succeeded in
portraying this theme by inserting shots of the castle presented from a dominant
distant point that gives the city a minimalist shape. Paradoxically, the constant
absence of these secret organizations reinforces their control over the individuals. It is
the fear of the absence what unifies individuals into crowds, and since Dr. Orlac

14
Written by Franz Kafka in 1926, it is an unfinished work that depicts the story of K. who arrives in a
village and struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities who govern it from the castle.
15
Another Kafkaesque element that depicts alienation and unresponsive authority.
16
This essay is indebted to an indirect source: Jonathan Ullyot’s Kafka’s Grail Castle, which alludes
heavily to the theme of the Absence as Authority where it describes the authority of the Castle
parasitic. It is related to this essay because it infers to the officials as figures who make themselves
appear remotely inaccessible to have the air of being absent, yet powerful.
believes that controlling crowds is easier than controlling individuals, working on
enhancing the scope of the power and possession of this absence is one of their
ultimate goals17. For instance, the film begins and ends with similar shots in a similar
setting yet with different characters. In the first scene the bridge sequence commences
with Edward Raban running over a bridge while a carriage passes lead by a single
man. In the last scene, Soderbergh finished the film with the protagonist, Kafka,
walking on the same bridge while the same carriage passes in a gloomy setting.
Interestingly, that carriage is the same one that carries the victims murdered by these
organizations. To give the film a satirical spirit, the first scene is a hint to the viewers
that this guy, Edward, who is running fearfully will be carried on that ‘death carriage’
that will pass from the same bridge on its way to the castle. Aesthetically speaking, it
is commonplace that the robust energy of a film lies in establishing the first sequence
and the last sequence on a contradictive level. Additionally, the power of the Absence
is reflected when Kafka is called for by his boss to inform him that the Castle has
summoned him and now they rejected the request for unknown reason. Broadly
speaking, Kafka died before finishing the novel; ergo, he informed his friend Max
Bold that the novel would finish with K.’s living in the village until his death. The
castle would notify him on his deathbed that his ‘legal claim to live in the village was
not valid, yet taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to
work and live there’ (The Castle 1989). In the film, this is a connotation that Kafka
stayed alive nevertheless his struggle to combat with the castle and penetrate their
system. One would question why Kafka is not murdered like the others, is it for the
same ‘auxiliary circumstance’ of K. in the novel? If so, can these circumstances be the
fact that he remained silent and not telling the truth? Then, what truth would it be?.
Seemingly, Kafka’s quest can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The way to find the
castle is not straightforward, but delusionary. This explains the interpretation that one
of the aims of this quest would be to find salvation. When Kafka confronts
modernism, he realized that the real nightmare is humans’ existence and their desire
for transcendence. This clarifies the reason behind Kafka’s motive to write about
nightmares whereas Dr Orlac, the representation of modernism, creates them. In
addition to this, another motive for Dr. Orlac behind these experiments to understand

17
This explains why Edward Raban was murdered initially. After having been killed by the zombie
like human, the official exchanged a certain medicine with the picture of Dr. Orlac to maintain his
anonymity. If Raban exposed his identity, his power will cease as well as his control.
the human brain is to make people more ‘efficient’. However, this interpretation
creates error as it renders humans more brutal and irrational. Therefore, it is inevitable
that this film lacks Kafkaesque elements from ‘the Castle’ since it is one of the major
themes that establishes the contradictive force of the plot and provokes the protagonist
to embark into his unattained quest. Therefore, the audience is confronted to a novel
cinematic language that speaks in silence yet with explicit images that denotes
feelings of disability, mental paralysis to think, and menace of the unknown. The film
projects its images on the viewers’ subconscious to transfer them through a
surrealistic experience that will lead them to decipher the paradox of reality and
fantasy. Both of these themes are unified even though they are distinct in nature. What
people think is real is actually surreal and vice-versa. Hence, this film questions the
credibility of truth, reality and fantasy.

By the same token, it is can be said that Soderbergh went through the same
Kafkaesque transformation (Metamorphosis) that confronted to a perilous journey
(the trail) that lead him to an ambiguous yet unfulfilled destination (the castle). From
reading the script to producing the image, Soderbergh claimed that struggle to make
this film does not lie in its flagrant nature but in its iconicization of Kafka as a
mythical figure18. It is self evident that the climax of the film was reached through the
visual shift from black-and-white to color, yet the survival from the castle is not the
ultimate goal of Kafka. Provided that the last scene send the audience the ‘death
carriage’ while Kafka walks on the bridge. This is a strong connotation of the
persistency of the tyrannical authorities that anticipates a postmodernist world
governed by non-transparency, arbitrariness and unobtainable goals. Thus, the film
has a deeper connotation than its main themes; it portrays archetypal characters that
represent ‘Everyman’ in this world19. What the viewers see is Kafkaesque within
Kafka itself: the protagonist is the ultimate representation of is what truly Kafkaesque.

To conclude with, Soderbegh managed to portray his story based on the


aesthetic insertion of the Kafka-ish trilogy. On a broader level, the three works can be
seen as a one unique piece of art that has three visions based on three different stories
18
This is an indebted indirect source: Michelle Woods’s Kafka Translated: How translators have
Shaped our Reading of Kafka. This source underlines the stylistic vision of the director and the reasons
behind iconizing Kafka as a mythical figure that casts total Kafkaesque elements and generalizes
‘Everyman’.
19
The Somonygy of Everyman is a late 15th century morality play. It is allegorical accounting for the
life of Everyman who represents all mankind.
in three different settings yet with a unique character. Samsa, Joseph K. and K. are all
alter ego of Franz Kafka; thence, Soderbegh managed to translate this trilogy and
coalesce it from a filmic language that speaks of the unspoken in a noisy silence. In
this view, Kafka went through the same metamorphosis given his struggle to adapt to
a society that accosted him to a trial governed by obscurities and absurdities (the war);
hence, such absurdities are reinforced by the absent yet powerful presence of the
castle which represents the New World Order. From a political and social point of
view, the struggle of being Jewrish amongst immigrants in Czech during World War I
explains the motives behind writing these polemic works20. It is the Metamorphosis of
being born in a wasted land (Prague) with a Jewish life confronted him to a struggle to
adapt to a society that did not accept him and put him on a trial under the cruelty of
war (the castle).

20
At the time when Kafka was living in Prague, ideologies of nationalism and anti-Semitism were
prevalent. Given his Jewish inherence, he believed that he struggled to adapt to such society governed
by war’s cruelty.