Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke; based on The Castle by Franz Kafka
Cinematographer: Jirí Stibr
Producer: Veit Heiduschka, Christina Undritz
by Jon Cvack
The Castle was the last film to see from Michael Haneke, who’s one of my favorite working filmmakers, producing a range of work that examines everything from voyeurism to mass media to the rise of totalitarianism. While Amour (2012) took a significant detour from his usual slate of work, examining a pair of 80-somethings when the wife suffers a stroke, paralyzing her body, and essentially offering Haneke’s take on the Geriatric Genre seen in such films as Away from Her (2006), The Notebook (2004), and most recently, Still Alice (2014). Having dominated the Awards circuit, I was left wondering how The White Ribbon (2009), while receiving mountains of accolades - which I consider one of the greatest films of the 21st century - amounted to only fractions of what Amour would be awarded; not to mention the majority of his other films which had often been overlooked and yet, upon looking back, were years ahead of their time.
I had first read Kafka in college, picking up his Metamorphosis and Other Stories and enjoying the collection, though perhaps a bit too premature in my literary interest to fully comprehend. A few years back I picked up The Trial (1925), and while enjoying it, the book was one of those vanity press knockoffs, providing an aesthetically ugly and dubitable translation that left me lost. Finishing Haneke’s The Castle and failing to fully comprehend what I watched, I picked up the book, hoping for more answers. Unfortunately, while I was able to follow the uncompleted work for the first quarter or so, soon the endless paragraphs of characters droning on about bureaucracy got the best of me, forcing me to further turn to third party explanations.
For those who don’t know, Kafka’s work was all published posthumously after the author died of tuberculosis at only forty years old. His most popular novels - The Castle (1926) and The Trial - examine nightmarish levels of bureaucracy, in which no one seems to have any answers beyond fragmented bits of knowledge and responsibilities. Orson Welles would go to direct a brilliant adaptation of The Trial that - at least with my experience - was arguably better than the book as the visual component allowed me to remember who was who, along with grasping the rich and stylish environments that Kafka described. While The Trial (also left incomplete) examines a man who’s prosecuted by a strange undefined authority for a crime that neither we nor the man know the details of, The Castle involves a land surveyor “K.” who arrives in a random and unspecified, trying to get in touch The Castle regarding his employment, unable to get anywhere close to the castle and instead forced into a bureaucratic nightmare where no one can offer him answers, only doubting his purpose, skills, and abilities, forcing K. to transition from person to person and becoming embroiled in an increasingly complex plot (thus the term Kafkaesque).
Having finished this film over three weeks ago, hoping that at some point throughout that time I might come closer to understand what occurred, all I’ve found are dense and overwhelmingly muddied explanations, with ample references forcing me to accept that fully comprehending the book could take months of study. Wikipedia and a few essays have discussed the idea of The Castle representing a transcendental or religious idea, possibly even God-itself, in which man can never reach. Thomas Mann had written the intro of the version I read, discussing how Kafka viewed writing as the closest activity that allowed him to achieve a comparable transcendent state, forcing him to commit fully to the craft. Combining the ideas from this perspective, perhaps The Castle and its nebulous plot contains characters who are all in some way or another striving for some thing that could provide the same transcendent state - whether religion, music, painting, or writing.
However, it’s with this idea in mind that I become torn - between wanting to dig into the details of the work in order to understand the minute conflicts and the references they contain versus accepting the general theme, and that perhaps the book and experience of writing it is simply providing the feeling or experience of what stands in front of achieving such a transcendent state. If we are to focus on Thomas Mann’s interpretation, with the fact of Kafka had died unpublished, perhaps what The Castle reflects is all of the obstacles that stood in his way - from agents to publishers to colleagues and those completely unrelated to the endeavors such as friends and women; all functioning as independent entities that were collectively preventing him from success.
Halfway through the book I was tempted to say Haneke’s movie left out enough to make the book far superior, and yet when I got completely lost, with absolutely no idea who was talking to who or what about or why - at least in Haneke’s film - by removing so many of the characters and plots, I was able to experience a more manageable story. In the end, I couldn’t tell you what the film was ultimately about any better than the book. With no significant synopses to discover, all I recall is K. (Ulrich Mühe) navigating the small town below the castle, meeting a bartender woman that he has an affair with while the town soon discovers the fact, all while K. maintains his determination to get to the castle for his job.
It’s shot with the classic pre-Funny Games (2007) flat look, where the camera sits on track parallel to the subject matter most times, following K. as he walks up and down the streets. I can’t think of a more better filmmaker to adapt the story (except for Orson Welles), as by Haneke’s removed and objective camera perfectly captures the nonsensical discussion. Discovering that the book was nearly 500 pages, I was left wondering what a full mini-series would do for the material, though unfortunately I think it’d become the next Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) (which to save you a read, felt like a 12 hour long episode of nothing but characters rambling with two hours of gold).
I’m aware that the easy criticism is to say it’s unfair for me to denigrate the film when I have only a cursory understanding, which then brings up questions about art and accessibility. I can appreciate what Ulysses, Absalom, Absalom!, and Gravity’s Rainbow have accomplished, but it requires a gross amount of reading beyond the source.The fine line between Great versus Good Art, or Art that is to be Appreciated, is whether the latter requires loads of secondary sources to unravel it. The greatest works of art contain just right amount of challenge, and yes this is a relative term, but I’d define it as what an average, intelligent person could understand without having it explained to them. The problem with texts like this and the other books is that it demands you research alternative resources - not just about the specific text (that is books about The Castle), but books beyond the text (such as the Bible, for instance), or knowledge of the history, politics, or culture from another time or area, which can only be discovered in other books. While I find such a pursuit an interesting endeavor and those who can follow it having a respectable passion, it’s very much made for a select/privileged group of people. Much of the Literary Establishment would say Ulysses is the greatest book ever written, yet I would bet that 90% of the reading public would find it terribly difficult and an unfulfilling read.
I appreciate the additional explanations of The Castle. I’m even interested in learning more about Kafka’s life and reading his other work, and maybe I’ll pick up some of these texts and have a richer understanding of the book. But it’s odd that I’d then appreciate a work of art by only reading about the work of art. It’s not a bad thing, just a bizarre way to have to ingest something that should offer a more immediate reaction. It’s an interesting film, though far from as a strong or interesting as Haneke’s other work.
BELOW: The perfect style for adapting Kafka
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