The Castle (Germany, 1997) * * * 1/2
D: Michael Haneke
To be a devotee of Franz Kafka is an almost sadomasochistic act of frustration, since his two masterworks, The Trial and The Castle, are books which are incomplete--missing many chapters, in the case of the former, and missing an ending, in the case of the latter. But then, this is my life, and I'm a frustrated individual. In high school I first discovered his writings--gravitating more toward The Trial and his short story "In the Penal Colony" than his more famous "The Metamorphosis," and obsessing over Orson Welles' 1962 adaptation of The Trial, which, with its horrendous sound quality and contrasty, beaten-up public domain prints, always looked like some mysterious relic from another dimension, and thus mesmerized me. (It was also, along with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and High and Low, my introduction to "art films.") I haven't read The Castle in eight or nine years, but upon watching Michael Haneke's 1997 adaptation (populated by familiar faces from the same year's Funny Games), I can say this matches my recollection exactly. This must be one of the most scrupulous literary adaptations ever made; it is faithful to a fault. But if you're a Kafka fan like myself, that fault will also be its strength. The Trial at least had a sketchy ending to draw from, and Welles used the fragmentary nature of the book as a stylistic device, embracing the dream-logic and paranoiac incoherency which builds and builds as the reader pushes through; the downbeat ending becomes appropriately apocalyptic in Welles' hands. But like the book he was adapting, Welles' work is broken and stamped-upon; like his films Mr. Arkadin and Othello, it was a low-budget movie scrapped together after years of effort, and demonstrates every injury. Appropriate, then, that Haneke's film also reflects its source, although it is considerably more polished and watchable. The protagonist of The Castle, known only as "K.," is a land surveyor who presses himself upon a small village ruled over by the mysterious "Castle," which we never arrive at, and its "Count," whom we never see. K. claims to have been summoned by the Castle, and yes, there was in fact a request for a land surveyor many years ago, although no one can agree upon whether or not he's still needed. Indeed, K. is continually congratulated upon the work he's been doing, even though, upon arriving at the village, all he can do is make inquiries to visit the Castle--ever denied--and attempt to infiltrate the upper echelons of the entangled bureaucracy. He seduces Frieda, the mistress of Kramm, one of the Castle's officials, and makes meetings with under-officials who have little interest in him. He is appointed two sycophantic assistants, whose help proves to be disastrous, and who never leave his side, even when he attempts to throw them out. Frieda, too, becomes worshipfully attached to him; she's an emotional wreck looking for any signs of admiration or approval. The way K. takes possession of her is surprisingly callous and self-serving; this is not the Joseph K. of The Trial, who has committed a crime he can't identify, but a man with identifiably monstrous traits. Although the Castle is callous and impenetrable, K.'s efforts to penetrate the castle gates are far from noble. His actions are often motivated by lust, cowardice, or greed for power. In a difficult book with little plot momentum, the fact that the hero is often unlikeable only makes matters worse; the fact that this aspect survived an adaptation to film is simply remarkable. But Haneke goes even further by emphasizing the random turns that all the characters take in Kafka's work: the inexplicable likes or dislikes the characters hold for K., and vice-versa. Kafka's cynical view is that all the world is impenetrable, forbidding, and ruthless; and we are criminals justly punished for attempt to infiltrate it. Haneke intermittently uses a narrator to read Kafka's prose, as K. stumbles through the snowy village from one futile task to another, and cleverly uses the fragmentary nature of the novel to accentuate the book's humor--cutting suddenly to black for a few seconds before the next scene only places emphasis on the absurd ends at which the last scene had arrived. I awaited with great curiosity what kind of ending Haneke would give this endless work, but instead of attempting to draw conclusions where none can be drawn, Haneke presents the ending as Kafka wrote it: an abandoned sentence, as Kafka gave in to fatigue and left the manuscript as it was. While the film threatens to fatigue the viewer, those attuned to its perverse satire will appreciate just how unique The Castle is. A piece of broken literature can become one-of-a-kind cinema.