After taking the film world by storm with Sex, Lies and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh flexed his creative muscles, showing off the versatility that would typify the rest of his career. Kafka remains an ambitious outlier in Soderbergh’s filmography. Adapted from a script by The Limey scribe Lem Dobbs, the film stars Jeremy Irons as Franz Kafka in an off-kilter noir shaped like one of Kafka’s own stories. It’s an interesting way to engage with the writer’s work, placing a somewhat flat simulacrum of the author into a fantastical extrapolation of his personal storytelling style. But this early into Soderbergh’s career, his reach exceeds his grasp.

Kafka works as a clerk for an insurance company. He grows obsessed with the disappearance of a co-worker named Eduard Raban, unraveling the tangled web surrounding the incident like a peculiar gumshoe. There’s a pretty purposeful Third Man vibe at play here, through Cliff Martinez’ unnerving score and Kafka’s interactions with Gabriela (Theresa Russell), Raban’s lover who’s mixed up with an underground group of subversives. This mystery plays out against the stark black and white backdrop of Kafka’s workplace struggles and the intermittent voice-over narration giving life to his daddy issue laden correspondence.

Ostensibly, this is an attempt to dramatize the tenor of Kafka’s real life and creative preoccupations through the lens of the stories he wrote. In that regard, it’s a fascinating exercise that works a lot more than, say, John Cusack’s Edgar Allen Poe thriller The Raven. The film captures that Kafka feeling with startling efficiency, translating the discomfiting calculation of his prose into the sharp compositions of German expressionism. It dually exhibits the existential horror of Kafka’s work alongside the absurd humor inherent to his authorial voice.

Irons is a curious fit for the role, possessing a muted presence that makes him difficult to anchor such an odd narrative around. He’s low key, but this makes him a better contrast to the more colorful work being done in supporting roles by actors like Joel Grey and Armin Mueller-Stahl. The cast of characters erected around him are as curious and varied as you might expect and every interaction is filled with an equal lathering of menace and non sequitur weirdness. This tenuous balance presages the blending of drama and comedy that would go on to characterize so much of Soderbergh’s work.

At its best, Kafka is a workplace drama that’s exactly as harrowing as most job stress feels. The overarching threat of bureaucracy and the ever-present conspiratorial tone are a perfect match for how sitting in an office every day addles the mind over time. As with most noir, dwelling too long on the intricacies of the plot will only trip you up and distract from the real star here. If nothing else, Kafka exceeds expectations as a brilliant showcase for Soderbergh’s cinematic prowess. It wasn’t particularly successful critically or commercially, but it’s still a smart calling card for all the tricks the director wasn’t able to show off in his more naturalistic debut.

That everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is a feast for the eyes, as it’s one of the more visually thrilling displays of Soderbergh’s early career, but it ultimately pushes too far. Rather than working in concert with the story, many of the film’s overt techniques seem to work in direct opposition to the shape and flow of the admittedly threadbare whodunit. It’s a sumptuous affair, spoilt for choice of which element cinephiles can drool over the most, but it the various strands never quite coalesce into anything functional. By the third act, the sleek chiaroscuro gives way to the vibrant colors of what feels like ‘50s exploitation pulp. The film’s climax thrusts Kafka face to face with the science fiction his work would go onto influence after his death. In micro, the set piece is exciting and really pops off the screen, but instead of tying everything together with a bow, it explodes the underlying tension in an inauthentic way.

As the extended experiment of a young filmmaker searches for the upper limits of his storytelling powers, Kafka continues to be a worthy watch, even if it seldom seems sure of where it wants to go.

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