Thursday, June 06, 2024

Kafka, on ChaiFlicks

Franz Kaflka was such a distinctive writer, his name became an adjective—probably more so than any other author before or since. Nobody describes any book or film as Maileresque or Kingian. We just assume Kafka’s life was as Kafkaesque as his books, especially since he perversely asked his literary executor to burn his entire body of work while on his deathbed. The real Kafka might have been eccentric and socially awkward, he was not the sad, beaten down figure we might assume. At least that is the portrait that emerges in creator-director David Schalko’s six-part Kafka, which premieres today on Chai Flicks.

Yes, Kafka’s Bohemian (pre-Czechoslovakian) family could be difficult, especially his over-bearing father, who inspired “The Judgement,” one of his son’s stories that he never saw much value in. Kafka’s best friend and future executor Max Brod was different. Even though he attained much greater literary fame within his own lifetime, Brod always recognized Kafka’s brilliance. That is why he carries Kafka’s papers with him while fleeing the German occupation of Prague, at the close of the first episode.

Schalko and series co-writer Daniel Kehlmann often skip forwards and backwards along the historically-grounded timeline. Their non-traditional approach incorporates elements of the mockumentary, with characters often ironically breaking the fourth wall.

Just as the people in Kafka’s life have ample opportunity to discuss him, he also is allowed to address his relationship with them. The first episode, “Max,” focuses on Kafka and his literary friends, including Franz Werfel, whom Brod (and pretty much only Brod) referred to as “The Prague Circle.” Admittedly, Kafka was never Thomas Mann during his lifetime, but Schalko and Kehlmann suggest he was not a completely anonymous outsider artist either (indeed, the famous Kurt Wolf was his publisher).

Kafka was not Warren Beatty either, but his personal life was much more complicated and sometimes scandalous than anyone would expect from a “Kafkaesque” figure. The second episode, “Felice,” focuses on his on-again-off-again engagement to Felice Bauer and his affair with her best friend, Grete Bloch. The conclusion examines the caretaker role Dora Dymant assumed with the ailing Kafka. Yet, the fifth episode, “Milena,” is probably the most satisfying, because it breaks format, devoted all fortysome minutes to a pivotal meeting between Kafka and his then lover, married journalist Milena Jensenska.

Along the way, shows us Kafka at work in his insurance office, where he was somewhat appreciated. In fact, Schalko and Kehlmann present him almost like a Bohemian equivalent of Anthony Trollope and Wallace Stevens, middleclass businessmen who wrote classic literature when home from the office.

Just so we remember what it means to be “Kafkaesque,” the six-part series periodically dramatizes excerpts from Kafka’s work that relate to periods of his life. Notably, these include
The Trial, The Castle, “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgement.” It would not be accurate to describe Kafka as “revisionist,” even though Joel Basman’s lead performance humanizes him to a surprising extent. Instead, it shows how his somewhat morbid creativity refracted through his idiosyncratic and somewhat off-kilter personality resulted in such darkly absurdist visions.

Basman is terrific as the naïve and often maddening Kafka. Likewise, David Kross offers such a complex and human performance as Brod, he often comes close to usurping Basman as the series protagonist. Similarly, Liv Lisa Fries delivers such a smart and fresh portrayal of Jensenska, her one-episode appearance can easily stand alone as short film, in its own right. She is the main reason why it is the best installment of the series. In contrast, Nicholas Ofczarek’s jowly and blustering turn as Kafka’s father Hermann is exactly the sort of unsympathetic stereotype viewers will expect.

Kehlmann and company often explore Kafka complex and somewhat contradictory opinions of Zionism, which probably land differently now than when the series was in production. Their Kafka would be the first to admit his feelings were mixed and hard to explain, but his growing affection for traditional Yiddish culture clearly comes across as partial the product of his rebellious instincts. We can all probably agree anything that annoyed old man Hermann couldn’t be all bad.

Consequently, this is a frequently fascinating series that will give viewers a very different perspective on Kafka, while re-confirming his cultural importance. Highly recommended for adventurous Modernists,
Kafka starts streaming today (6/6) on ChaiFlicks.