Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Castle: An Adaptation by Michael Haneke

Those familiar with the Austrian director Michael Haneke's oeuvre wouldn't be surprised to find an adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Castle in his filmography. Just like Kafka, his main concern in his movies is the alienation of man in modern society, though I think they both slightly differ from each other in their diagnosis of the problem. While for Kafka it was the unfathomable bureaucracy and the legal machinery of an all powerful state that led to the feelings of alienation, for Haneke it is the consumerist culture of late capitalist societies based on shallow individualism and self-gratification that is the source of the problem. This is not surprising given how the all powerful state and its attendant bureaucratic structures have withered away in the last few decades and how they have made way for equally, perhaps even more, impersonal and oppressive structures which have become part and parcel of advanced bourgeois and capitalist societies. In Haneke's movies all this is exacerbated with the collusion of the official culture industry - television, media and cinema - which fabricate false realities with false emotions for sale and profit and which in turn alienate people further from their real selves. The best of Haneke's films Code Unknown, The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance illustrate this really brilliantly.

Now coming to The Castle, I was initially surprised to see the film. It is an extremely faithful and an exceedingly literal adaptation of Kafka's novel. There is even a voice-over which mimics the authorial voice of the novel at regular intervals, which gives it a sense of being an illustrative companion piece to the novel, which is what it actually is, rather than being an independent work. I am not sure if Haneke wanted it this way, but if at all he did, I think he succeeds very well. Other than the literal story there are other things he captures very well. One thing that intrigues me in Kafka, specially his novels, is the way he uses time and structures his narrative in such a way that we never get a sense of how much time has passed between two scenes. This is what gives his narrative a dream like quality. Just like in a dream the narrative exists outside the bounds of linear time. In fact, there has been a huge debate about the exact chronological ordering of the chapters of The Trial. A recent translation had the orderings altered based on some recently unearthed evidence about the way Kafka himself intended it to be (the book was put together from his manuscripts by his close friend Max Brod and was published posthumously). Anyway, I think Haneke achieves this effect rather well. Every scene in the movie ends with a jump cut to a blank screen, many in the middle of a dialogue and the next scene begins in what seems a rather abrupt manner. This discontinuity evokes the same feelings of reading Kafka's novels.

Also the background and staging of the scenes, though far from being surrealistic, approximate Kafka's description rather well. Haneke achieves it through wonderful use of lighting and framing. It is almost always dark in the movie, not the lights and shadow kind, but like a place where it is always twilight and it is always foggy. The camera never moves, mimicking the detached and neutral narrator of the novel. There are no long range shots of the village as a whole, and we just see houses half submerged in snow. There are no shots of the eponymous castle either, which is fitting no doubt. I think the only mention of the sight of Castle in the novel is in the very first sentence itself, which is itself an speculation because everything is covered with fog and it was already getting dark when K. first reached the village.

The acting, as always in Haneke movies, is uniformly brilliant. Specially Susanne Lothar in the role of Frieda, who was also magnificent in Funny Games. Her sex scenes with K. are just brilliant (just like in the book) and I think it was because of her acting that the role of Frieda becomes more important than what one gleans from a cursory reading of the novel. And because of this Haneke brings out the sexual subtext of the novel and the themes of sexual paranoia and fears of love and commitment, which are such an integral part of the novel, really very well. Also the two jokers, in the role of K.'s assistants, provide some good comic relief, perhaps the only comic moment in the entire Haneke's oeuvre (okay, there is a great funny joke in Cache too now that I remember!).

For those unfamiliar with Kafka's novels the film can actually be very frustrating. It is because the way Kafka structures his narrative which is diametrically opposite to conventional storytelling. The narrative never ever moves forward, every attempt to do so is thwarted by unseen and unexplained forces. The protagonist, and the reader, never achieves any better understanding of his condition in the end more than what he had in the beginning. And everything ends without any conclusion or explanation. The great thing about Kafka is how he subverts traditional story telling techniques and the exactness and precision of his prose which have a strange evocative effect on the reader and which enables him to address grave philosophical issues without ever getting into abstract or vague discussions himself. I think this is exactly what Haneke must have had in mind too. He also focusses on literal aspects of the novel and makes it evocative and suggestive of deeper and complex themes. Finally, I think this is a film which would be of interest mostly to Kafka enthusiasts or those who are taking a course in Kafka studies and need a reading aid to his novel! For others it will just remain a curious art house film.

This DVD Times review has more details and also has a few stills of K., his assistants and Frieda from the movie.


Jigar said...

I am not well-versed in Kafka or Haneke (whom I chanced upon through 'Cache', a film that brought about an abrupt change in my way of looking at films. The last scene was a masterstroke of deception). Your post is quite informative, especially when ou explain the difference between Kafka and Haneke (beurocracy and Capitalism). I enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

The abrupt shifts in Kafka might well be due to it's incompleteness . Kafka's stories tends to run away from him The Trial most notably....