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Steven Soderbergh Reintroduces His Cult Classic ‘Kafka’ After Decades of Tinkering

TIFF: Soderbergh's maligned 1991 follow-up to "sex, lies, and videotape" gets a whole new life thanks to the filmmaker's revisionist perfectionism.

KAFKA, Jeremy Irons, 1991, © Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

“Kafka”

©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

This year’s TIFF has been a subdued affair compared to its pre-pandemic days, but the announcement of a new, secret Steven Soderbergh film built up a lot of interest and buzz for festival patrons. There were a few theories about what the project could be: a recut of one of the director’s older films, most likely, 1991’s “Kafka”; a sequel to his debut feature film “sex, lies, and videotape”; or “Kimi,” the mystery thriller Soderbergh has been working on with screenwriter David Koepp, starring Zoë Kravitz, set in a post-COVID world and supposedly reminiscent of “The Conversation,” “Rear Window,” and “Panic Room.”

Of those three options, the least enticing was definitely a recut film, and that is exactly what TIFF’s secret screening ended up being. Soderbergh introduced a reimagining of his sophomore film “Kafka,” retitled “Mr. Kneff” and re-edited as if from the perspective of a “deranged critic/fan.” But just because it wasn’t the most exciting option doesn’t mean that it was not exciting. Quite the opposite. Indeed, “Mr. Kneff” reveals a deeper look into the acclaimed filmmaker’s mind and creative process.

The original film came out in 1991 on the heels of Soderbergh’s stupendous success with “sex, lies, and videotape,” for which the then-26-year-old director won the Palme d’Or, making him the youngest filmmaker to receive the prestigious Cannes award. The black-and-white “Kafka,” set and shot in Prague, stars Jeremy Irons as the titular Bohemian writer with a mundane job as an insurance clerk. His concern over a missing colleague takes him down a rabbit hole to reveal bureaucratic corruption and murder, and he’s uncertain who is his friend or foe. Among many colorful characters are his stoic boss (Alec Guinness), his coworkers, the anal-retentive Burgel (Joel Grey), mysterious Gabriela (Theresa Russell), and the detective assigned to the murders (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The viewer is never completely certain which narrative events are real and which are from Kafka’s rich, writerly imagination.

With “Mr. Kneff,” Soderbergh shaved off 20 minutes from the original, rearranged the narrative structure, and tinted certain scenes to better delineate diegetic reality from Kafka’s imagination. This additional coloring supplements the original’s climactic ending with Kafka’s break-in into the Castle, where the film suddenly blooms into full color. Soderbergh also removed all the dialogue and opted instead for color-coded subtitles. There are new music choices in select scenes, some of which sound like unused B-sides from the “Ocean’s 11” franchise as well as an instrumental of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The result is quite… trippy.

As for the title, Soderbergh didn’t want to just name the film “Kafka 2.0” or “Son of Kafka,” and instead wanted a name that could substitute for “Kafka.” “Mr. Kneff” fits the actors’ mouths when they say “Kafka,” meaning it looks like the actors could be saying “Mr. Kneff.” Soderbergh said he ultimately wanted to reverse-engineer the subtitles.

KAFKA, from left: Brian Glover, Jeremy Irons, 1991, © Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

“Kafka”

©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Mr. Kneff” transforms the existential period thriller to lean into its sublime absurdity of a man trapped in his deadened life and forced to explore the cavernous underbelly of an ominous institution that appears to kill civilians at random (the plot weaves in elements from Kafka’s own “The Trial” and “The Castle,” and is compared to “Brazil” and “Naked Lunch”). Soderbergh’s mad scientist tinkering is like a precise experiment that paradoxically finds him throwing various things haphazardly at the wall to see what sticks, and he was delighted to hear the audience’s reactions about his experiment at the premiere. In the Q&A, he talked about his decision to recut “Kafka” into “Mr. Kneff” came from his dissatisfaction with the film’s myriad mixed accents and a script that was too muddled for audiences to determine parts of the plot are really just Kafka’s imagination. While the burnt-orange and swamp-yellow tinting were certainly helpful, I was still somewhat confused by what was going on at times, though I can say Soderbergh did achieve one thing with “Mr. Kneff,” which was a heightened surreal mood and emotional realism that captures Kafka’s inner world.

We know what a silent movie looks and feels like. We rely so heavily on the image in silent cinema to emotionally and narratively inform us that we tacitly ignore the lack of sound entirely, and in fact, sometimes are burdened by the intrusive addition of music. But “Mr. Kneff” is different insofar as it is not entirely a silent film. It’s downright surreal to watch something where background sound is kept intact, anachronistic music is introduced to throw us wayward, and yet, the familiar, soothing sound of the human voice is taken away. It feels like an unsettling dream, which mirrors the experience of the main character. The lack of dialogue also calls acute attention to the actors’ body language, but unlike a normal silent film, where the performers were tasked to act more physically, in “Kafka” the actors had regular dialogue like the majority of movies made after the early 1930s.

“Mr. Kneff” thus underscores something we already knew: Irons is such a supreme actor that even when you remove his signature voice, his physicality informs and moves us enough on its own. His facial reactions to the perplexing conditions of modern life ushered in by the Industrial era, his paranoid glances and piercing glare at the people whom he cannot trust (which is everybody). Irons’ dark, brooding face was the perfect canvas for the ode to German Expressionism the young Soderbergh clearly had in mind with “Kafka.” The protagonist’s troubles with life are quite apparent and, thanks to the director’s new artistic choices, add to the viewer’s unease and confusion over what is real and not real in the film.

At the Q&A after the film, Soderbergh said, “I look at it now and think, ‘That’s a film that only a stupid young man can make,’ and I mean that in a good way.”

KAFKA, Jeremy Irons, 1991, (c)Miramax Films/courtesy Everett Collection

“Kafka”

©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Kafka” didn’t sit well with critics. At the time of its release, a baffled Roger Ebert gave the film two stars and wrote that while it demonstrated Soderbergh’s talent, it was “unwise in his choice of project.” For the New York Times, Vincent Canby related virtually the same sentiment: “’Kafka’ is a very bad well-directed movie.”

Despite the cult status the film has since garnered thanks to the director’s well-established auteur status, Soderbergh simply hasn’t been happy with it for 20 years and had been working on a new revised version of the film for some time now. While many of us were perfecting sourdough bread or obsessively playing “Stardew Valley” during the pandemic, Soderbergh found ways to keep characteristically prolific despite the lockdown. Soderbergh watched a staggering amount of film and television, produced a disappointing 2021 Academy Awards, helmed a Directors Guild committee to create COVID-safe protocols for film shoots, developed a “philosophical” follow-up to “Contagion,” is writing a follow-up to “sex, lies, and videotape” and shot two full-length feature films (“No Sudden Move” and “Kimi”). When he wasn’t on a film set, he was tinkering with old films after gaining the rights for seven of his films for a box set he plans to release sometime next year, which includes, among other things, “Mr. Kneff” and edited versions of “Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal.”

This box set reveals another aspect of Soderbergh’s restless creative mind. He’s long-established himself as an iconoclastic presence in the industry, not only for his sheer productivity and range (think of the thematic and stylistic golfs separating his first and second films alone), but for trying to muck around with the studio system, cut costs and do his own marketing, shoot films on iPhones, dabble in meta-casting, and cultivate a successful career outside of Hollywood after a brief retirement.

Soderbergh has long been obsessed with experimentation, not just with style and genre, but with the functions and processes of contemporary filmmaking itself. Many of these experiments are forward-thinking, innovative, antiestablishment Parkour stunts to break away from the status quo. With “Mr. Kneff,” instead of reaching into the future, Soderbergh delves into his own past with an aim for revisionist perfectionism. Yet the recut is still, somehow, a textbook example of Soderbergh cinefuturism. How often do directors regain rights to their intellectual property and release their most auteur-pure cut after 20 years of experience and hindsight? “Mr. Kneff,” then, is not only a new film, but a new form of directorial, creative control.

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