Original airdate: October 1998
DVD Release: November 12th, 2012
Running time: 123 minutes
Country of origin: Austria
Original language: German with English subtitles
Director: Michael Haneke
Writers Michael Haneke (screenplay), Franz Kafka (novel)
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar, Nikolaus Paryla
Bureaucracy; the scourge of the modern individual. It’s something with which almost every person can be completely united in their frustration. We may live in the technological age but modern society’s still plagued with various bodies for which we must navigate a labyrinth of different processes. We can still find ourselves drowning in forms requiring this information, or that signature, and manically flitting from one department to another, and another, to get an answer. Slowly losing the will to live, we can be convinced that we’re not just going around in circles but utterly lost within the machinery.
Such plight has come to be termed ‘Kafakaesque’ after the sort of mind-bending bureaucratic hell within which Franz Kafka’s characters would often find themselves ensnared in his writing. His novel The Trial was turned into a noir nightmare by Orson Welles, seeing Anthony Perkins destined to appear in a faceless kangaroo court for a crime he’s unaware of. The author’s unfinished novel, The Castle (Das Schloß), also featured such a situation where a character is driven mad by a lack of answers. This is exactly how an audience can feel after a Michael Haneke film, so it seems appropriate for him to be the one to adapt Kafka’s incomplete work.
The particular situation in this instance is that K (Ulrich Mühe) arrives in a small village to take up the position of Land Surveyor for the local authority. That authority is the all pervasive but never seen, eponymous Castle to which only certain people are allowed access. When K first arrives he’s met with hostility by an official-seeming man and although it is accepted that he is the new Land Surveyor, he’s bewilderingly confined to the local tavern. Denied a visit to the castle he’s then lumbered with two young men who arrive to assist him; claiming to be his long-term colleagues, yet unknown to him and without his all important surveying equipment. In a desperate attempt to meet Klamm, an elusive local official, K sleeps with his mistress, Frieda (Susanne Lothar), the barmaid at an inn used by castle-folk. K now has no way to start his work, nobody capable of aiding him, no form of communication with the titular government and now, inexplicably, a fiancé.
Whilst it would be going too far to consider Haneke’s version of Kafka’s tale a comedy, there are certainly comedic elements to K’s frustrating plight and the impenetrable ways of the village. Muhe is on fine form as the bemused K; his face seemingly able to portray a wonderful sense of bafflement with the slightest of effort. This is not to undermine his resolve though and despite every turn leading him further and further from reaching the castle and taking his rightful place as Land Surveyor, he never does relent. It’s says a lot that we do empathise with K, despite never really getting to know him and being kept intentionally distant.
The film takes an interesting place amongst the other work of Michael Haneke, now considered by many – myself included – to be amongst the very best of modern filmmakers. Whilst I think that drawing Kafka as too much of an influence on the director can be a bad idea, there are certainly elements throughout The Castle that would crop up again. The austerity of the adaptation is something to be reflected by much of Haneke’s work and although the abrupt ending is obviously down to the unfinished book, it does mirror the more open ended conclusions to the filmmaker’s other works.
The most striking thing for me was seeing Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar together. The duo also appeared, as a couple, in Haneke’s other film made in the same year, the unforgettable Funny Games. In that film, they’re tormented by two ever-smiling but equally vicious young men and it was the strangest sensation that I feared a similar fate for K at the hands of the jealous and bungling assistants. Naturally, this was not intended by the filmmaker, but was a curious thing to experience.
There are also motifs that reoccur in other films, from the rationalised lack of responsibility that would crop up in Hidden, to the inability to communicate (albeit in a different form) in Code Unknown, as well as similar distancing editing techniques. The general feeling of oppression and repression that permeates the village seems to chime with a variety of films in his oeuvre.
Funnily enough, though, it’s the lack of explicit meaning which once again consumes me after the film ends. If it is just about being “Kafkaesque” – and it’s very faithful to the source – then that’s fine, but I have the nagging suspicion that there’s a lot more there. Reflection will undoubtedly shed more light on underlying meanings, as is oft the case with the films of “The Professor”. As it is, it’s an interesting piece, but nowhere near as all-consuming as Hidden or The White Ribbon. Not on first viewing at least.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.