2017/10/18 - 20:42

Trains of Traffic: Kafka's Novels into Film

by Vera Pohland, Concordia University


“Die Zuschauer erstarren, wenn der Zug vorüberfährt” (Kafka, Tagebücher 7). Kafka’s first entry in Notebook One of his diaries at an early stage in his development as a writer, briefly refers to a film and its effect on the audience.1 The early impact of film was often notably dramatic: upon seeing the Lumière brothers’ short film of an oncoming train2, it is reported that the audience in the movie theaters did not become stiff but rather jumped out of their seats. They “are said to have stampeded at the sight of the locomotive barreling toward them from a distant prospect into the foreground of the screen” (Cook 11). When Kafka recollected the shock the moving images aroused in the viewer he might well have been recalling his own vision recorded five years earlier in his famous letter to Oscar Pollak. There he announced the effect the written word was to achieve in the reader, “we need the books that affect us like a disaster [...]. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief” (Kafka, Letters to Friends 16).

In 1929 the Soviet director Sergej Eisenstein claimed: “[h]ewing out a piece of actuality with the axe of the lens” (Eisenstein 41), as one of the basic principles of contemporary cinema. To perceive a book as an axe for breaking open congealed inner worlds, and the camera lens as an axe to shape reality, forcibly lays claims to the transformative impact of art, whether through the medium of the book or film, on the recipient. Kafka’s public reading of his story “In the Penal Colony” actually had a physical impact on his audience. Some fainted, many even left the hall. The subdued observer Eugen Mondt noted: “Never have I observed a similar effect of spoken words” (Mondt 119).3 The audience goes rigid when Kafka reads.

Observing both the solidification and shattering of reality conveyed through motion pictures was a stimulus and challenge to Kafka’s writing. He came to realize the powerful impact of visual images on people’s emotions. Zischler states “The shock of the moved and in itself moving image gives Kafka something to think about” (Zischler 15).4 Zischler points out that Kafka’s career as a writer in the years between 1908 and 1913 parallels numerous visits to theaters and movies. The cinema incorporates for Kafka “almost demonical technology that demands high requests on the obtained vision, the visual and writing power of the author” (Zischler 22).5 According to his study it is the cinema with its moving pictures that provides the essential impulse through which Kafka reconfigures his material in his diaries, letters and stories. Zischler regrets that cinematography, neither as technic nor as image is thematized in Kafka’s prose “as if Kafka in contrast to many authors of his generation, is doubting its literary potentiality” (Zischler 144).6 Yet by 1913 Kafka had already internalized the unique character of cinematography. His writing embodies an incisive notion of what the reality of film could accomplish, emphasizing both the materiality and illusion of images. It projects right in front of his eyes the potentiality of ‘inbetweenness,’ a paradoxical synthesis of reality and nonreality, the reality minus the real, that informs his writing. Adorno infers this very notion when he writes in 1934 to Walter Benjamin:

Kafka’s novels are not screenplays for experimental theatre, since they lack in principle the very spectator who might intervene in such experiments. They represent rather the last and disappearing connecting texts of the silent film (and it is no accident that the latter disappeared at almost exactly the same time as Kafka’s death); the ambiguity of gesture lies somewhere between sinking into speechlessness (the destruction of language) and the emergence from the latter in music- (...) (Adorno / Benjamin 70).7

Cinematography is based on a projection of reality that is simultaneously both a real image of reality in acquired true copies of real events fixed on celluloid material, and yet an unreal semblance of reality produced by light and pictures. In other words, through the technical device of projection, through a mechanical subtraction from reality the cinema creates occurrences that do not happen there where they are viewed, and it places them into time and space in which they do not factually exist. Like books, than, motion pictures can “affect us like a disaster” (Letters to Friends 16). They are accepted by onlookers as having a reality of their own.

For more than eighty years now, the distinctive character of Kafka’s writing has been the object of countless inquiries and original insights. He still activates productive ongoing interpretative desire, as Rainer Nägele phrases it, that tempts interpreters to develop more and more subtle strategies of understanding so as to arriving at the authoritative reading of his texts. Today not only literary critics, but more and more, film directors, are subject to this same compelling desire to present their own definite readings or filmic interpretations of Kafka’s texts.

For the purposes of this paper, I wish to take Kafka’s remarks on the passing train ‘movie’-- “Die Zuschauer erstarren, wenn der Zug vorüberfährt”-- as a starting point to distinguish the particular characteristics of Kafka’s writing that I consider to be significant for cinematic transfer. His writing aims to affect the reader physically. While it significantly omits overtly topical references, it nonetheless embraces attitudes of both fascination and suspicion toward modern technological devices of communication, traffic and transfer. Finally, Kafka’s writing establishes a territoriality that places itself like the celluloid film on the border between reality and non-reality. The sentence quoted at the beginning notes the recipients, ‘Zuschauer,’ their reaction ‘erstarren,’ and an event, ‘wenn der Zug vorüberfährt.’ The medium of perception the motion picture shot is passed over in silence. Even in the intimate context of a diary the statement sounds cryptic, almost as if it was intended as a kind of incantation of his writing program. Kafka is writing on an event taking place in of reality, but leaves out the reference and thus disengages both the words and the occurrence from a specific determination. It inserts them into an abstract time and space no longer bound to a specific experience, and no longer restricted to specific connotations, but instead opens them up to further investigation meaning. The names in his novels and stories and the initial K. work in a similarly open-ended manner. Disengaged words and images provide the mesh his parables are made of. They guide the structure of Kafka’s speech, and they contribute to the distinctive gestural style of his writings. Walter Benjamin pointed out that Kafka “divests the human gesture of its traditional supports and then has a subject for reflection without end” (Benjamin 122).

Cinematic recording is a distinctive element in Kafka, occurring when the written word assumes the gaze of the hewing lens of the camera. The verbal equivalents of zooming in and out of focus, as well as fast cuts of created images accompanied by trans-cinematic multi-sensual sensations, appear in the following sequence from Der Verschollene:

Und morgen wie abend und in den Träumen der Nacht vollzog sich auf dieser Straße ein immer drängender Verkehr, der von oben gesehen sich als eine aus immer neuen Anfängen ineinandergestreute Mischung von verzerrten menschlichen Figuren und von Dächern der Fuhrwerke aller Art darstellte, von der aus sich noch eine neue vervielfältigte wildere Mischung von Lärm, Staub und Gerüchen erhob, und alles dieses wurde erfaßt und durchdrungen von einem mächtigen Licht, das immer wieder von der Menge der Gegenstände zerstreut, fortgetragen und wieder eifrig herbeigebracht wurde und das dem betörten Auge so körperlich erschien, als werde über dieser Straße eine alles bedeckende Glasscheibe jeden Augenblick immer wieder mit aller Kraft zerschlagen (Der Verschollene 55).

In claiming that the four salient aspects of film found in the first diary entrance (albeit, not overly accounted for in cinematic terms) characterize the key elements Kafka derived from motion pictures, I pose the question, as to wether later cinematography was able to identify and develop the specific incitements the earlier cinema has had for Kafka? Further to this, do the movies based on Kafka reflect the same physicality, omissions, ambiguity and territoriality characteristic of his writing? Kafka’s narration embodies the cinematographic gaze, as well as the strong physical and gestural elements of dramatic performance, yet a faithful transfer of his texts into moving pictures seems to be all but impossible. Not least because he believed pictures fail to embody the necessary doubt about the image they represent. This skepticism is particularly evident in Der Verschollene when Karl, looking at the photo of his parents, has severe doubts about the capacity of the Photograph to reproduce reality, and to represent even a close approximation of the truth about the reality.

Desto genauer sah er die vor ihm liegende [Fotografie] an und suchte von verschiedenen Seiten den Blick des Vaters aufzufangen. Aber der Vater wollte, wie er auch den Anblick durch verschiedene Kerzenstellungen änderte, nicht lebendiger werden, sein wagrechter starker Schnurrbart sah der Wirklichkeit auch gar nicht ähnlich, es war keine gute Aufnahme. Die Mutter dagegen war schon besser abgebildet, ihr Mund war so verzogen, als sei ihr ein Leid angetan worden und als zwinge sie sich zu lächeln. Karl schien es, als müsse dies jedem der das Bild ansah, so sehr auffallen, daß es ihm im nächsten Augenblick wieder schien, die Deutlichkeit dieses Eindrucks sei zu stark und fast widersinnig. Wie könne man von einem Bild so sehr die unumstößliche Überzeugung eines verborgenen Gefühls des Abgebildeten erhalten (Der Verschollene 135).

As if to confirm his doubts, the photo serves to cool his cheeks when he inadvertently falls asleep on it. However, it is not what the image presents, but only the material surface of the photo that provides comfort: “Das Bild entfiel seinen Händen, dann legte er das Gesicht auf das Bild, dessen Kühle seiner Wange wohltat und mit einem angenehmen Gefühle schlief er ein” (Der Verschollene 136).

Kafka’s observation of the limited representational capacity of the photographic image poses a challenge to cinematography. Do the cinematic adaptations of Kafka’s works reflect upon that complex element of his writing that points to grave doubts as to ever achieving truth (beyond mere verisimilitude) in representing reality? Do these films try to achieve, like Kafka, an artistically viable borderline position, an ‘inbetweenness,’ that comprises, holds togehter and avoids the polarity of life, that captures elements of his ”ungeheure Welt, die ich im Kopf habe” (21.VI. 1913. Tagebücher 562), and that speaks to his aversion to antithesis?8 What I mean in coining the term ‘inbetweenness’ is implicit in Peter von Matt’s recent statement: “Der Gang über die Grenze, die Schwelle, wird angetreten, und in der genauen Sekunde des Übergangs geschieht die Verwandlung. Die Sekunde wird endlos, die Schwelle zum Lebensort. Dieser Raum ist gleichzeitig raumlos, weil er reine Grenze ist, zweidimensional wie das Seidenpapier. In ihm entsteht Kafkas Werk” ( Matt n. pag).9

Unintentionally Matt here not only points to the territoriality of inbetweenness in Kafka’s writing, but also relates it to its cinematographic quality when he claims: “trennscharf stehen die Dinge im Licht, so bezwingend wirklich, dass die Differenz zu unserer Wirklichkeit nur diese selbst in Zweifel rückt” (Matt n. pag). Learning from Kafka the filmmaker Michael Haneke aims to achieve what he calls “Entwirklichung” (Horton 1) in his works.


Trains and machines in Kafka relate to traffic. Transfer is doubled, and in reality the train links passengers to space thereby producing traffic. In the Lumière brothers’ short film the onrushing train establishes a connection between the moving images and the onlookers, creating cinematic traffic. The cinematic light causes corporeal ‘Erstarrung,’ congealment (Tagebücher) when representing traffic, whereas the reflective light of ongoing traffic seems to be so corporeal in that it generates the impression of an ongoing ‘Zerschlagen,’ a shattering (Der Verschollene). The moment of ‘Erstarrung’ entails a physically fixed state in contrast to the moving pictures. However, it opens up a dimension of tremendous emotional release. Kafka demonstrates how the scattered, diffused light of the cinema can become the axe to cut open the frozen sea within us. To make this announced writing program of 1904 truly viable, the written word must both shatter and recreate the experience of reality.

The train produces and represents traffic, because traffic means, communication, exchange, messages, movements. It implies two sides and an act, instance or process of transferring, a carryover from one side to another (Meriam-Webster online dictionary). In German it means Verkehr, an ambiguous word that oscillates between various opposed meanings. When Ruth V. Gross explores Kafka’s complex usage of the meanings of verkehren she emphasizes that “it means to communicate, socialize, traffic, trade, or have sexual intercourse with; but when transitive, it means to invert reverse, turn upside down, or even pervert. Thus in verkehren the intransitive is the mode of transitivity” (Gross 578). She states that it “seems to carry some of Kafka’s obsessions within it, insofar as he is the writer of the upside-down, the absurd, das Verkehrte” (Gross 578). To reverse traffic, den Verkehr verkehren, is a practice in Kafka that leads not to the absurd but to ‘inbetweenness’, a state were neither one thing nor its opposite are valid.

In Kafka traffic as motion from one fixed point to another turns out to be preposterous. Kafka’s traffic does not convey meaning, it remains in a condition of motion on a borderline. For it is the failed transfer of messages, letters, telephone calls and telegrams that are notorious in his biographical and literary works. In 1914 he begins a story named “The Kalda Railway,” but the train never makes it to Kalda, but rather ends up near a small settlement in solitude 10. Likewise the story ends as a fragment, never arriving anywhere. In his much noted letter to Milena Jessenska he bemoans that “Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way.”11 In his stories “gesellschaftlicher Verkehr” (Das Urteil), and “menschlicher Verkehr” (Die Verwandlung, Ein Hungerkünstler) are reduced to minimal contact. "Hier ist kein Verkehr," a man remarks twice to K. in Das Schloss (27).

Kafka’s doubt concerning communication ever actually functioning is not so much contradicted but strengthened by his fascination with technological communication and traffic devices that range from typewriters, to telephones and dictation machines; from motor bikes, to express trains and airplanes. These tools speak to his biggest fears and his highest goals as a writer: in doing so they transgress material boundaries. They hold the power to either alter the message or alter the reality in which the message is placed, thereby shifting the discursive context.12 The first entry in the first diary notebook of Franz Kafka suggests that the film of the passing train made this awareness painfully visible to him. “Die Zuschauer erstarren, wenn der Zug vorüberfährt.” His trains of traffic convey neither commodities nor messages.13 They move to shatter the solidification of meaning.14Was soll ich tun? oder: Wozu soll ich es tun? Sind keine Fragen dieser Gegenden” (20. Oktober 1917, Hochzeitsvorbereitungen 54).


Once more, did the cinema take up and develop the impulse it initially gave to Kafka? As yet, I have not heard of anyone fainting in a Kafka movie. Uninitiated viewers are more likely to get bored and fall asleep.15 Does this mean that film cannot translate Kafka’s complex narrations, - to convey the physicality, ambiguity and territoriality of his writing through images? Indeed the fragmentary character of Kafka’s novels begs the question as to wether the dramatic climax and final denouement that is often desired by film narration is even possible in cinematic interpretations of Kafka. Nonetheless, the persistent attempts to approximate his enigmatic literature, and potentially to ‘crack his code’ of meaning through an authoritative interpretation has also been transferred to the cinema in the recent decades. Between 1962 and the present more than 35 films based on Kafka have been produced.16 Do the 35 films respond to Karl Rossmann’s doubts concerning the representational capability of photography? And is that doubt also valid for motion pictures? Ultimately, do the films adopt Kafka’s literary transgressions and his ‘inbetweenness’ as visual potentiality?

To approach this complex theme I focus on trains of traffic, considered in terms of technological communication devises of all sorts, and as modes of exchange and intercourse in five films based on Kafka’s novels. These film-versions of Der Verschollene, Der Process, and Das Schloss differ significantly in the ways they adapt Kafka’s narratives and words, in their use of cinematography, in directorial styles, sounds and images. The artistic intentions of these films run the gamut from professional Hollywood-style entertainment to experimental avant-garde cinematography. Nevertheless, they all bow to the authority of Kafka’s words in their avowed determination to be truthful to the (assumed) identity of the original. In doing so they are drawn into Kafka’s realm of ambivalent tensions, into the risk of attaining an undesired antithesis. Instead of producing floating traffic between the solidification and shattering of meaning, they seek to cause nothing but the congealment or shattering of Kafka’s written text. The films allow us to observe how the transfer of words into moving images encounters the problem of keeping textual traffic afloat, given its passionate resistance to the congealment of meaning. Based on this premise the question as to what we gain from cinematic attempts to understand Kafka can be adequately posed. Out of the large number of Kafka films produced in many different countries, the most popular and accessible ones in America are: The Trial, by Orson Welles of 1962, The Trial by David Hugh Jones of 1993, Danielle Huillet’s and Jean-Marie Straub’s Klassenverhältnisse (1984) based on Der Verschollene, and two film-versions on Das Schloss, one by Rudolf Noelte of 1968, and the other by Michael Haneke of 1997.17

The first shot of the black and white production of The Trial by Orson Welles visualizes the director’s concept of cinematic traffic between literature and film: illustrations comment upon the written word, and words are transferred into images. Presented as a dream of K. the film starts out with the parable of “Before the Law” in a slide show that is replicated at the end of the film. Welles narrates this key text of The Trial at the outset of the film with concrete illustrations and with no evident fear that shifting the context, portraying figures and narrating the text as a story would necessarily constrict interpretation. In so doing Welles implicitly claims that cinematic narration must present images. He does not succumb to the illusion that the medium of film can serve to transfer and reproduce the novel authentically, and deals in an extraordinarily liberal manner with the text. In placing “Before the Law” as preface to the film he posits his picture as being outside of the authority of Kafka’s text.

Nonetheless, Welles deliberately creates illustrations, and though concerned with the abstractness of the law, he abstracts the film’s images from the ones that Kafka’s text evokes. The film abstracts from a familiar reality and frees objects, spaces and noises from their conventional dimensions. Framing the story with the slide projection of “Before the Law’ introduces the viewer to his cinematic concept of literary adaptation. The director is posited as an interpreter who utilizes visual devices (the slide projector, the film camera), and his competence in re-narrating the text in images derives from his interpretation and use of cinematic tools, not from the authority of the text itself.

Although Welles uses Kafka’s communication machines, supplemented by a slide projector, and a (feminized) computer, he perceives Kafka’s trains of traffic as radically ambiguous. The physical context of many of his shots is the abandoned Gare d’Orsay in Paris. The station might as well serve as a reminder of the Lumière brothers’ train movie that caused the onlookers to go rigid. As architectural construction the train station resembles a cathedral of trade and intercourse, yet now abandoned it is fallen into disuse and futile. Welles presents the station in its architectural space as abstract and inhuman, and he contrasts it with other spaces such as old villages merging into modern suburbs, distorted spatial dimensions, outsized doors and caged suites, that leave little room for human development. When Welles uses film noir techniques like back-lighting and extreme shadows, he does not intend to create antitheses but rather yields to his compulsion to employ the cinematic apparatus in a dreamlike search for meaning.

Welles’ film produces a grid of traffic through intersecting lines formed by streets, images of architectural oppositions, deep contrasts of flashing lights and dark shadows, surreal spatial dimensions, and through humans who cross the screen in opposed directions. Joseph K. often moves against the grain of common, idle traffic. Through this grid of traffic18 Welles emphasizes his interpretation of the abstract law as agent in the foundation of a totalitarian system. Abstractness, increased by technology, establishes an invisible web exercising a tight grip on the individual. Before the film ends with K.’s execution, caused by a bomb of atomic force, the parable of “Before the Law” is presented a second time. K., awake now, walks into the slide projection of the parable as if he could place himself on that borderline between reality and slide image, and further, as if he could walk into the door of the two-dimensional picture of the one-dimensional law. Using the technique of rear projection Welles employs an optical illusion of Joseph K. that points to the reality of his trial: K. moves forward without getting ahead. When Welles as director of the film impersonates the lawyer who is narrating the parable he justifies his use of visual devices in terms of his imaginary interpretation. Welles deliberately transgresses the realm of cinematic illusion by explaining that the cinematic attempt to transfer Kafka’s novel into a motion picture can only be a heuristic exercise. Through envisaging Anthony Perkins as a contemporary Joseph K. walking beyond the scope of the frame of the slide projector Welles signifies that Kafka’s text goes beyond the scope of visualization. He ably addresses the problem of Kafka’s doubts concerning the representational capability of pictures and thus engages the essential problem of how to read his texts still prevailing in Kafka research. Of all the Kafka films mentioned here Welles’ production is the only one that does not claim to present anything other than an interpretation of his own understanding of the nature of guilt. He creates an adequately enigmatic artwork replete with powerful images and thus produces a fruitful tension between the literal template and the exigencies of visual adaptation in order to stimulate in the onlooker an engaged personal quest for understanding.

David Hughes Jones as director and Harold Pinter as screenplay writer had the inconceivable task of facing the challenge posed by Welles’ controversial and critically discussed masterpiece of modern cinema when shooting their 1993 version of The Trial. In contrast to Welles, Jones presents the novel as a given reality in realistic, colorful, fluently paced images that closely aligned with Kafka’s images in order to achieve a visual duplication of his literary evocations. Jones turns to historical costumes, decorative props, and representative architecture to fashion the story of K. and his trial. He provides us with stable and coherent cues about the world around K. in detaching the historically specific images from conventional ‘kafkaesque’ notions by unfolding The Trial in a realistic and representative context.

K. in Welles’ production fights against a bureaucratic, abstract authority that is invisible but nonetheless uncannily pervasive. In contrast to Welles, Jones’ adaptation shifts from a victimization motivated by the abstract law to a victimization triggered by the irritated self. K.’s psychic process of disintegration caused by internal uncertainty is catalyzed by the first encounter with the authorities in his bedroom. He never recovers from the challenge to his sense of normality. This destabilization is visualized when K. is presented at the bank, called to the telephone to receive the cryptic message about the Sunday meeting he has to attend. K. walks with the handset in a 360 degree circle around the phone, providing not only a panoramic vision of the pompous architecture of the bank that represents an oppressive stability, but in permitting a view of the four office suites behind him the camera also places the telephone at the center of a cross. K. revolves uneasily around the phone indicating that his individual place in the bank is at risk. His sense of self spirals between a clinging to normality and the threatening anonymous powers centered in the voice coming out of the black apparatus. This inner split foreshadows the way in which his case starts to propel him from his established position into an unknown one.

The film does not raise doubts about the possibilities of communication ever succeeding. Traffic happens between people without ambiguity, nor does the film touch upon Kafka’s suspicions about the modern apparatuses of communication, since they function all too well. Here it is only the message that is incomplete. But the effect on the self is momentous: it causes destabilization and suffering. The following sequence in which K. is presented on his way to his initial inquiry reiterates this point. Beginning with the image of a church, and its dominant symbol of the crucifix the camera picks up the cross in the organization of two shots of the same passing tram that cuts across the frame twice from opposite directions. K. gazes at the tram in surprise before he sees the passengers inside. On the tram are the assistants present at his earlier arrest, staring right back at him. The tram forms both a point of intersection of traffic between K. and the agents of the trial, and a spatial cross that is repeated by the eye contact between K. and the agents. The scene ominously indicates that his troubles have only just begun.

Towards the end of the film, in the visit to the cathedral, confusion about what the message conveys is deliberately generated once again. Unlike Welles, Jones abstains from any additional visual add-ons in presenting the parable “Before the Law.” Anthony Hopkins, as the priest, fulfills the task of masterfully narrating the parable in a long monologue, atypically of Hollywood narration. During the oration the viewers watch the precise choreography of MacLachlan’s and Hopkins’ walking and stopping, yet they gain no visual clues about what to do with the meaning of the parable. Once again, not the tools or vehicles of traffic but the incomplete message communicated is the focus of Jones’ Kafka film. K.’s trial is envisaged as a process of suffering without knowing why.

In the end, just before his execution, K. sees a human figure in a highly positioned window above him who stretching out both arms wide, openly recollecting Christ as crucified savior.The fact that K. is perceived looking up to this figure emphasizes his own suffering and leaves the question of his guilt undecided. K.’s unsettling experiences of disintegration are triggered by an arrest characterized by certain comical features that only exist in words. Unknown powers execute him in the end yet he remains somebody whose guilt has never been established nor proven. Contrary to the underlying allusions to the story of the Christian sufferer and savior, who brings his message to the world. K. has nothing to communicate, a message has never been sent, and no redemption can therefore be expected.

Jones does not attempt to present an interpretation of the novel. He seems to transfer Kafka’s words into moving images without the kind of personal involvement Welles was able to bring to his film. In fact, because Jones’ adaptation denies an interpretative gloss K. emerges as a modern sufferer whose message paradoxically implies that there is no message to be forwarded. In reference to Eisenstein’s remark I would argue that Jones does not attempt to use the camera to hew “out a piece of actuality with the axe of the lens” (Eisenstein, 41). Rather, Jones deploys the camera as a window into a strange world, long gone, where agents, the law and literary texts struggle to convey a meaning that was neither explicit nor stable nor assured in and of itself. Harold Pinter provided this reading in his script as a self-reflective comment upon turning a Kafka novel into a screen-play. If the literary artwork itself does not convey a readily apparent or solid meaning why should the film adaptation pretend to do so? In the end Jones’ film The Trial is not concerned with Kafka’s traffic and his text’s predisposition for inbetweenness but with his authority as modern writer. The Kafka myth is apparently so pervasive now that his work is grist to the mill of the entertainment industry.

Based on Kafka’s novel fragment Der Verschollene is Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s film Klassenverhältnisse. The change of the title indicates a certain distance from Kafka’s original text, and a specifically tendentious reading of it. Eschewing the conventions of the film industry, Straub and Huillet repudiate habitual film perception. Out of their aesthetic concerns for creating “materialist cinema” (Cook 620) they do not intend to narrate Karl Rossmann’s story for identification purposes nor do they attempt to recreate, translate or duplicate the vivid images Kafka established in the novel into pleasing visual impressions.19 The two filmmakers claim that their work is not an interpretation of Kafka’s novel (Böser 320), a statement Wolfram Schütte asserts when he declares “wo einmal ‘Der Verschollene’ war, ist nun KLASSENVERHÄLTNISSE ihm zur Seite getreten: als ein Sprach-, Sprech- und Bildwerk mit eigener immanenter ästhetischer Logik und Fraktur” (Schütte 11). Based on a faithful attention to Kafka’s words, Straub/Huillet invoke Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte in the gesture and rhythm of speech and in the bleak and sober black and white pictures far removed from the atmosphere evoked by Kafka’s text. Klassenverhältnisse focuses on executing the fateful social motions of Rossmann in bare and rigid images. This cinema allows only meager acting and minimal possibities of performance and it is achieved through a rigid composition of light, space and sound so as to detach the audience from the possibilities of passive film consumption. In addition to the static acting of the mostly lay actors the camera appears to be determined to remain uninvolved, and motionless. The gazing eye of the camera envisages the object in distinctive frames often without moving from its initial position and the direct sound registers Karl’s actions seemingly without a subjective angle of interest. This suggests at first that a firm, specific and unchangeable point of view can be obtained. Such a reliable point of view would sustain the film’s objectivity and authority, and permit the viewer to arrive at a judgement on the underlying questions of Rossmann’s guilt. Yet the assumption that an objective, and authoritative knowledge is achievable because the recording camera is ostensibly not involved, and the isolated shots and sequences are not narrating, so as to enable a viable fiction, is contradicted by the extreme lens angles from which many of the shots are taken. These angles signify positions from which only very subjective, and by no means authoritative or universal valid judgements, could be derived. The viewer consequently becomes entangled in these conflicting visual messages.

Despite their disclaimer that the film is an interpretation of Kafka’s novel Straub and Huillet touch upon the persistent questions concerning Karl’s faults, and the seminal question of his guilt or innocence. In fact their film proves the futility of this question. Klassenverhältnisse shifts the focus from the individual and guides the spectator’s perception to the examination of relationships. The hero’s intentions and actions are not in themselves accountable for the outcome because they are seen to be imbedded in a complex play of interactions that presume little individual freedom. In claiming that Karl is moving like a free man in a society in which that is impossible Straub and Huillet view their Karl as “rebel” (Straub/Huillet 57).

Traffic in this film is represented by the ship, a helicopter crossing the screen upon Karl’s arrival in New York, cars, telephones, a typewriter, the elevator, and the train. Ships, cars and trains indicate mobility and social advancement. Yet these tools lead neither to the protagonist’s progress nor to a display of bustling traffic.20 They stand for calculated, simple and sparse movements either from here to there or in an upwards and downwards motion.In using these trains of communication and traffic the directors identify movements and clarify social relationships within a rigorously conceptual and coordinated system of Karl’s career as “Verschollener” in America. Vertical lines in this coordinate system are represented in the lift scenes at the Hotel Occidental in the middle of the film. The rise and fall of Rossmann as favorite of the main cook and as a lift boy is indicated through his movements in the narrow, coffin-like elevator. The long shot of him ascending with the main cook in the lift illustrates the climax of his career. When his fate turns against him through the intervention of Robinson and Delamarche, Karl slowly descends in the elevator. He hesitates to leave the lift as if in doing so he might hold on to the job he is about to lose. When the questioning about his actions by the main waiter takes place in the office, the telephone plays a critical role. As in Kafka’s novel, Rossmann’s actions are misrepresented to the main cook via the telephone that is ultimately seen as a communicative devise to inhibit understanding and alter reality.

Straub/Huillet construct a coordinate system that registers Karl’s social motions as upward and downward moves, signified in the horizontal and vertical movements of the transportation vehicles he uses without bringing him closer to any given destination. Karl comes to realize both that the promise of America’s social mobility as essentially an ascending motion is an illusion, and that the new world represents a domain from which he as a newly arrived immigrant remains excluded. The American success story of Karl Rossmann from lift-boy to millionaire is rejected from the start and Straub/Huillet consciously debunk this kind of fiction. In Klassenverhältnisse America holds out to the individual an unfulfilled promise of connection and integration, that remains for ever inaccessible. The spatial organization of the film, as Böser pointed out, “does not serve the demands of the narrative but one in which Klassenverhältnisse have become visibly inscribed” (Böser 325). She quotes Straub’s comment on the film title:

[...] wir wollten mit diesem Titel einfach sagen: es geht so (er macht mit der Hand eine Geste in vertikaler Richtung), und es geht auch so (er macht mit der Hand eine horizontale Bewegung). Und in beiden Fällen finden Verhältnisse nicht statt. Das sind nur chemische Verhältnisse. Es sind Klassenunterschiede, und sie wirken als Klassenverhältnisse, und es wird immer abgebrochen (Böser 325).

This explains why Straub and Huillet chose to hold on for several minutes to the lengthy tracking shots at the film’s close of Karl looking out of the train along the banks of the Missouri River on his way to the Naturtheater of Oklahoma. The train ride picks up the horizontal movement of the beginning when the ship enters New York Harbor. Again, the underprivileged immigrant’s hope of finally finding his place in the New World is conveyed by tools of traffic. The possible utopian element implicit in this endless shot has been observed by several critics.21 It does not lie in the untrammeled view of Karl in a context of uncultivated nature along the river, and consequently waiting for change. The camera effectively separates him from that view. Utopian hope is related to the train ride itself, and this escapes the hierarchical orders imposed by the “Klassenverhältnisse” of capitalistic America, frees up introspection, and enables transgression.22 The tools of traffic here do not serve to question communication per se, since they doubt the bourgeois narrative of progress (Schütte 49). Straub/Huillet’s unconventional film offers reflections upon the possibilities and limits of cinematography itself and speaks to Karl’s doubts about what a picture is able to represent through the trains of traffic. They convey in paradoxically motionless motion pictures both the petrification and the dynamics of individual and social mobility. Their protagonist, Der Verschollene, if his train ride ever come to an end, will have to pace out the trajectory of yet another destination and he will probably arrive late: “Es war spät abend, als K. ankam” (Das Schloss 7).

Although both “visibly and audibly the filmic-recreation of a narrative is not what Straub/Huillet aim for” (Böser 326), their film nonetheless provides an interpretation of Kafka’s novel. In removing their visual material far from Kafka’s images but in applying Kafka’s tools of traffic to spatial cinematic organization they arrive at one of the novel’s major concerns, namely Karl, conceived as a missing person. He is lost, he lacks a place, he cannot be heard, and he cannot hear, his very name is ‘verschallt.’ Rossmann in Klassenverhältnisse remains unlocatable-always between territories, between reality and fiction, between old and new cultures and between class relationships. “The narrative and linguistic constructions of Kafka’s prose thus provide the starting point for filmic examination and a foray into alternatives to dominant film form” (Böser 327). The inbetweenness of Kafka’s writing as well as of his fictional figure Karl Rossmann seems to figure the liminal self-conception of the two film-makers Straub/Huillet who are, like Kafka, devoted to shattering fossilized and congealed attitudes of perception through their art. Yet Kafka’s perception of cinema, as he noted on November 20, 1913, also included “Maßlose Unterhaltung” (Tagebücher 594).

Kafka’s comments on the cinema after 1913 are scarce, but by then he had internalized the cinematic gaze. Likewise, trains of traffic appear less often in his latest novel-fragment Das Schloss. His already quoted letter to Milena explains why people invented the train, the car, the aeroplane - “to attain a natural intercourse” (Letters to Milena 223). On the other hand the intercourse inhibiting ghosts, invented the postal system, the telegraph, the telephone, and the wireless. Kafka emphasizes this split in 1922 at the time he was working on the novel.Tools of traffic carrying people appear on the side that provides peace for the soul and eliminates ghosts: tools of traffic carrying words appear on the side that supports communication-devouring ghosts. This antithesis is not likely to assuage Kafka. In Das Schloss he sends out K. to invade and survey this sphere of the ghosts and to demand natural intercourse. But K. gets tangled up in relationships, in sexual intercourse and traffic with women: “Der Coitus als Bestrafung des Glückes des Beisammenseins ” (Tagebücher 574).

Only sledges travel back and forth in the reign of Graf Westwest. Letters, phone-calls, official correspondence, and files dominate this world, and no train, and no car is available for locomotion. This is why the tools of traffic that Kafka now claims for “natural intercourse” cannot structure or signify interpretation in the films based on Das Schloss. Yet both directors, Rudolf Noelte and Michael Haneke, emphasize communication devices and, as if to extend Kafka’s vision, add the wireless, the radio. We can nonetheless ask to which meaning do they arrive in their adaptations?

Somber colors dominate the lighting in both movies, while yellow lights on the face and hands of certain people around K. accentuate the turbid even gruesome atmosphere. Haneke, who makes use of calculated intertextual comments, reserves a brighter yellow light for people of the castle. Both pictures evoke emotional reactions that are scarcely removed from the eternal stereotype of the gloomy world of Franz Kafka. The castle, a complex of old yellow painted buildings on a hill, is physically present as a fully substantiated image throughout Noelte’s film. The vision is clear in the beginning, while the view is unobstructed. The land surveyor stands up to the castle and its powerful, anonymous, disorganized, yet self-perpetuating bureaucratic machine. Noelte displays traffic only as a one way transfer from the castle to the village.The telephone power-line, the focus of K.’s gaze, signals the means by which the castle is able to maintain control of the village. Phone poles indicate the direction, showing how to get to the castle but K., seemingly tired, stops walking along the poles, and calls for a carriage instead. No one will provide a vehicle for him while the telephone in the inn has anthropomorphic features, simultaneously a kind of robot and indicator of the castle’s human nature, that deprives the individual K. of his work, privacy, and freedom. When the telephone proves to be of no use for communication, the messenger Barnabas sleds downhill with K’s assistants. The letter addressed to K. is pinned on a stick, resembling a mock white flag of surrender. Noelte accentuates the slapstick performances of the assistants more than Haneke so as to present a contrasting image of K.’s sternness and to keep the ambiguity of his identity afloat.

No technical prop is involved, and no reversal of direction can be expected. Only one-way traffic is permitted by the castle. What this kind of traffic produces becomes visible in the home of the major. Here the output of an absurd, idle, paper producing machine is stored. The room of oversized dimensions is filled with huge filing shelves big enough to make humans seem like mere dwarves. The scene in which Mizzi, the major’s wife, is walking towards the back of the room makes this especially clear. Already small in size she seems to shrink even further in the face of the filing shelves. As if this were not enough she and K. also walk into the barn next door that is filled yet more piles files. K. glares at a rat that is thriving on whatever nourishment the mountains of paper provide.23 The gigantic appearance of bureaucracy in the major’s home exaggerates the role played by the castle so that it appears as a remote controlling power flooding the village with idle correspondence: food for ghosts who devour real communication.

Noelte’s film uses confrontational frames to present K. as a lonely individual pitted against the community of the village, and overshadowed by the sheer size of the castle. Symbolic images are interspersed with realistic depiction in order to obscure perception and to develop the kind of ambiguous meaning the film narrative itself cannot convey. Noelte’s interpretation of The Castle builds upon the question as to K.’s identity as either surveyor or vagabond, Landvermesser or Landstreicher. “Who are you?” is a question explicitly asked by the landlady during the celebration for the new fire department equipment. K.’s answer is overlapped by the speech of the firemen’s chief. His mumbled explanation remains unclear. The landlady’s doubts persist and so does the uncertainty of the audience as to whether he is in fact the appointed land surveyor in order to maintain the film’s narrative suspense. Maximilian Schell depicts K. as silent, stern and serious, providing ample scope for ambiguity. He could be a man who struggles against the unattainable power of the castle to secure his rights and his freedom, and at the same time he might be an impudent crook who uses his outsider status to intensify his outrageous demands on authorities. It remains deliberately undecided as to which of K.’s two possible identities will be revealed in the end. The judgement concerning his identity will be deferred forever. Yet Noelte’s ending of the film provisionally attempts to give an answer. In contradiction to Kafka, the film ends with an assistant of Klamm leaving the Herrenhof to return to the castle. K. follows his carriage, listening to the ongoing monologue about Klamm’s being disturbed by the changes K. has imposed upon him. They pass through a gate but the camera remains in the vicinity of the village, now capturing only a misty view of the castle. Although out of sight the voice can still be heard: “Personal things cannot intervene” he says. “Balance must be restored.” These last words are answered by K.’s short outcry, followed by his howling scream of “Stop.” The music picks up the theme of despair yet it modulates into mourning with the written information on Franz Kafka’s inability to finish the novel and his having died in 1924.Thus, clarity as to K.’s real identity will never be revealed and the audience consequently must defer to Kafka, as if in unsealing this mystery the true meaning of the novel could be revealed. Noelte tells K.’s story in conventional film style seeking to add cinematic suspense to a text that resists a plot or meaning.

Contrary to Noelte, the version Michael Haneke produced in 1997 for TV minimizes the illusion of reality and the deceptive techniques of film narration by unfolding The Castle as primarily literary text. Haneke disconnects the sequences from each other through clear cuts and a black screen, thereby making manifest the mode of editing the film imposes on Kafka’s text. An off-voice reads from Kafka’s novel to relate what the images do not convey and as if to make sure that the cinematic transfer will have no effect upon Kafka’s words. Many frames depict K. pacing back and forth like an animal trapped in a cage hemmed in by snow and wind on the trails of the village. Technical props do not structure the film but they reveal the mode of the director’s interpretation of Kafka. After K. has been told that the surveyor’s apparatuses will never arrive, the visual reminiscences concerning trains of traffic suddenly vanish. Instead, a wide variety of direct sounds from radio music to a chain saw, sometimes unrelated to the scene shown on screen, pick up the invisible yet dominant presence of modern technology within the filmic text. They insinuate those elements contributing to the absence of communication among people.

Haneke’s intertextual references to Noelte’s production emphasize his repudiation of dominant metaphoric or symbolic images. The camera focuses on the face of a real radio instead of an anthropomorphically designed telephone, demonstrating his concept of filming Kafka’s text. Haneke does not intend to construct Kafka’s novel in terms of connotative images but to use real images to unfold their material, gestural and sound qualities in the cinematographic text until they become almost unreal. Noelte confronts K. with the phone as two strange entities, unable to produce communication due to the insuperable distance between him, the castle, the village and its people. In Haneke’s film the people in the inn circle around K. during the phone call. Through inserting K. as foreigner into the center of the villagers and thus into the center of their curiosity and attention he does not appear to be isolated and even serves a function for them.Yet communication does not take place here either. The letter Barnabas hands to K. in the following scene is already emptied of meaning. K.’s visit to the Major brings yet more confusion and obfuscation about his status.

In the Major’s home the bureaucratic apparatus of the castle appears much less gigantic and much more farcical than in Noelte’s vision though this does not diminish its authority. Mizzi and the assistants who search for the file the Major asks for treat the single file cabinet as a trash can for bureaucratic waste before they bury all the files in it as in a coffin. But Haneke’s film avoids creating symbolically charged images that might possibly confine its meaning and inhibit the viewer’s examination of the cinematic work’s personal relevance. Haneke declares: “Das ‘Beliefern' des Zuschauers ist die eigentliche Verachtung des Zuschauers. (...) Man sollte dem Zuschauer ein bißchen dabei helfen, sich auf seine eigene Urteilskraft, seine Sehnsüchte und Utopien zu besinnen” (Grisseman/Omasta 3).

Noelte shows the traffic between K. and the castle as a one-way traffic of communication. As with the phone line and the phone poles he depicts a linear structure that can be transferred to an imaginary line between a positive-negative polarity so as to maintain the uncertainty as to where to place K. between his possible identities as land surveyor or vagabond. Haneke shows the village surrounding the castle as a cage, and more particularly a trap for the foreigner. Snow and cold in this film signify the “emotionale Vergletscherung” (Horton 1), the emotional glaciation of our age which Haneke is fighting against. The starting point for Haneke’s cinematography is more or less aligned with Kafka’s notion of the frozen sea, and his vision of the impact film should have on the audience seems to be derived from Kafka’s perception of the train.24 He states his intention through depicting a kind of negative utopia in his films to thereby provide an impetus for change (Grissemann/Omasta 2). Yet his film The Castle is rated by some critics as one of his weaker productions since it does not appear to shatter anything nor does it succeed in de-icing the emotions. The trains of traffic in this film are not intended to direct visual perception into specific modes of awareness. However, like the flashlight of K’s assistants they assist in shedding much needed light on a text that is tremendously challenging. Haneke’s film, in keeping a certain distance from the illusionary imperatives constituted by the medium, arrives at a reading of Kafka that emphasizes the prevailing social difficulties underlining the notion of a displaced foreigner trying to find his way in a closed society. This is by no means a new interpretation of The Castle. But when Haneke treats the question as to whether K. is a land surveyor requested by the castle as irrelevant he suggests that K. is actually fulfilling his task since he unwittingly surveys the thus far inchoate definition in the reign of the Graf Westwest of what a foreigner actually is. At this point the name Kafka chose for the count starts to make sense: Westwest points towards America, the country where Karl Rossmann tried to find his place. The name refers to the way the Western European world often chooses to deal with foreigners; that is as intruders, rather than as guests. The reign of the Graf Westwest connotes unbounded space, space that needs to be surveyed in order to assert itself. Apparatuses and trains of traffic as means of defining that space become obsolete because in relation to the castle in all his attempts and movements K. himself marks out the crucial borderlines posed by this land. In order to fulfill his task he has to remain on the border, in Kafka’s distinctive terrain of ‘inbetweenness.’

The five films discussed here use very different systems to re-create the narrative discourses of Kafka’s novels. Welles and Straub/Huillet, with widely divergent intentions and results, employ the literary text more freely as a perceptual structure for their experimental art and thus extend Kafka’s work into their own. Noelte, Jones and Haneke more-or-less submit to the authority of the original word by seeking cinematic images equivalent to their own understanding of Kafka. However, they fall short in directing the viewer’s attention to the medium’s self-reflective potentiality as demanded by Kafka’s literature.

Returning to the question as to whether the cinema creatively developed the impulse it initially gave to Kafka, I would have to state that based on the analysis of these five films, it was decidedly not up to the challenge. Films narrating novels necessarily compete with the verbal and imaginary complexity, the duration, and the very materiality of the literary text. They strive to create an illusion of reality. Yet Kafka’s literature is neither concerned with establishing an illusion of reality nor the denial of that reality through the creation of different worlds. Based on the very material properties of language Kafka’s literary works seek to gain a footing on the borderline between reality and non-reality, and to create out of this inbetweenness the ultimate potentiality of his material, the word. Cinematographic images are not equivalent to the word. The film as medium produces reality minus the real while Kafka’s language expands reality.

Trains of traffic in the films establish Kafka’s notion of traffic, transfer and communication as problematic. Yet the films themselves appear as trains of traffic between literature and film, and they are singularly unable to carry the impact of Kafka’s scepticism concerning the representability of the photo/cinematographic image. They do not shatter concealed inner worlds and, except in the case of Klassenverhältnisse, elicit new perceptions. Nevertheless, they all offer interpretations of Kafka in manifestly visual and audible texts and thus maintain the Kafka-interpretationmachine in motion, further impelling the ongoing traffic of texts on Kafka, and in their constructive function as traffic, refusing to acknowledge determinate boundaries of genre, media and technology.

No longer do onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. But oddly enough readers still go rigid when reading Kafka.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. and Benjamin, Walter. The Complete Correspondence 1929-1940. Ed. Henri Lonitz. Trans. Nicholas Walker. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. “Franz Kafka. On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Böser, Ursula. “‘Das Kino aber stört das Schauen’: Straub/Huillet’s Klassenverhältnisse and Franz Kafka’s ‘Der Verschollene.’” Text into Image: Image into Text. Eds. Jeff Morrison and Florian Krobb. Amsterdam: Rodopi 1997. 353 pp.

—. “‘Zum Sinn durch die Sinne kommen’: Language and Sound in Straub/Huillet’s Kafka Film ‘Klassenverhältnisse.’” Text und Ton im Film. Eds. Paul Goetsch and Dietrich Scheunemann. Tübingen: Narr 1997. 129-140.

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1981.

Eisenstein, Sergeij. “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram.” Film Form. Essays in Film Theory. Ed. and trans. Jay Leyden. London: Dobson, 1961.

Foell, Kristie A. “The Lyrical as Opposition in Straub/Huillets Film Version of Kafka’s Amerika. Journal of The Kafka Society of America. 17 (1993): 4-12.

Grissemann, Stefan and Michael Omasta. “A Negative Utopia: A conversation with Michael Haneke.” Das Schloss. Forum, Filmfestival Berlin 1997. August 22, 2001. <http://www.fdk-berlin.de/forum97/f019d.html>.

Gross, Ruth V. “Fallen Bridge, Fallen Women, Fallen Text.” The Literary Review. Kafka: Centenary Essays. 26. 4 ( 1983): 577-587.

Horton, Andrew J. “De-icing the Emotions. Michael Haneke’s retrospective in London.” Central Europe Review. 5, 26 (1998). August 22, 2001.


Jakobson, Wolfgang. “Kafka Adaptionen: Filmografie, Bibliografie.” Klassenverhältnisse von Danièle Huillet und Jean-Marie Straub: nach dem Amerika-Roman “Der Verschollene” von Franz Kafka. Ed. Wolfram Schütte. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer TB, 1984. 195-203.

Kafka, Franz. Das Schloss. Ed. Malcolm Pasley. 2 vols. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1982.

—. Der Verschollene. Ed. Jost Schillemeit. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1983.

—.Letters to Friends, Family & Editors. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Schocken, 1977.

—. Letters to Milena. Trans. and introd. Philip Boehm. New York: Schocken 1990.

—. Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande und andere Prosa aus dem Nachlaß. Ed. Max Brod. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1986.

—. Tagebücher in der Fassung der Handschrift. Eds. Hans-Gerd Koch, Michael Müller and Malcolm Pasley. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer 1990.

Kittler, Wolf. “Schreibmachinen, Sprechmaschinen. Effekte technischer Medien im Werk Franz Kafkas.” Franz Kafka: Schriftverkehr. Eds. Wolf Kittler and Gerhard Neumann. Freiburg: Rombach, 1990. 75-163.

Leni’s Franz Kafka Page. “Kafka at the Movies.” [web page] August 22, 2001. <http://victorian.fortunecity.com/vermeer/287/movies.htm>.

Matt, Peter von. “Unter entzündeten Wolken.Kafkas Kämpfe mit den Narren.” The Kafka Project. Mauro Nervi © 1999-2001. August 22, 2001. >http://www.kafka.org/wolken.htm<.

Mondt, Eugen. “Abende für neue Literatur.” Franz Kafka. Kritik und Rezeption zu seinen Lebzeiten 1912-1924. Ed. Jürgen Born. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1979. 117-120.

Nägele, Rainer. “Kafka and the Interpretative Desire.” Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance. Centenary Readings. Ed. Alan Udoff. Bloomington, Indianapolis, 1987. 16-29.

Paul, Hermann. Deutsches Wörterbuch.Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1981.

Pick, Otto. “Franz Kafka ‘Betrachtung.’” Franz Kafka. Kritik und Rezeption zu seinen Lebzeiten 1912-1924. Ed. Jürgen Born. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1979. 20-24.

Schütte, Wolfram, ed. Klassenverhältnisse von Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub: nach dem Amerika-Roman “Der Verschollene” von Franz Kafka. Frankfurt: Fischer TB 1984.

Meriam-Webster online dictionary. >http://www.m-w.com/dictionary.htm<

Zischler, Hanns. Kafka geht ins Kino. Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1996.


Klassenverhältnisse. Dir. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. 1984.

Das Schloß. Dir. Michael Haneke. WEGA-Filmproduktion 1997.

Das Schloß. Dir. Rudolf Noelte. 1968.

The Trial. Dir. Orson Welles. 1963.

The Trial. Dir. David Hugh Jones. Written by Harold Pinter.1993.


1. “The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past” (Diaries 7). Hans Zischler indicates the context of this entry in his study Kafka geht ins Kino (15). The influence of films on Kafka’s writing is also dealt with in Wolfgang Jahn: “Kafka und die Anfänge des Kinos.” Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft, 6. Jg. Stuttgart 1962, 353-368, and in Bettina Augustin: “Raban im Kino: Kafka und die zeitgenössiche Kinematographie.” Schriftenreihe der Franz-Kafka-Gesellschaft. Vienna: Braumüller, 1987, 38-69.

2. Auguste and Louis Lumière, L’arrivé d’un train en gare. 1895.

3. My translation of: “Niemals habe ich eine ähnliche Wirkung von gesprochenen Worten beobachtet.”

4. My translation of: “Der Schock des bewegten und in sich beweglichen Bildes gibt Kafka zu denken.”

5. My translation of: “Für Kafka hingegen ist es [das Kino] fast dämonische Technik, die an das erworbene Sehen, die Seh- und Schreibkraft des Autors sehr hohe, qualvolle Anforderungen stellt.”

6. My translation of: “... sie bleibt eigentümlich ausgeschlossen, als zweifle Kafka, in deutlichem Gegensatz zu vielen Schriftstellern seiner Generation, an ihrer Literarisierbarkeit”

7. Adorno in the same letter links Kafka, photography, and the image in an attempt to exemplify the specific character of his writing: “I claimed he represents a photograph of our earthly life from the perspective of a redeemed life, one which merely reveals the latter as an edge of black cloth, whereas the terrifying distanced optics of the photographic image is none other than that of the obliquely angled camera itself” (Adorno 66).

8. “Sicher ist mein Widerwillen gegen Antithesen” (20.XI.11. Tagebücher 259).

9. The transgressive quality of Kafka’s writing has been recognized as early as 1913 when Otto Pick publicly stated “... diese neue Art Betrachter, wie Kafka sie restlos, daher unnachahmbar repräsentiert, sieht nie die Dinge an sich und auch nicht ihren Schein: Die Begriffe verschieben sich, Alltägliches steigert sich zum Ausserordentlichen, Gespenstisches wird wohlvertraut ...” Otto Pick. “Franz Kafka ‘Betrachtung’” (Bohemia 30. Januar 1913).

10. “Nun hätte die Bahn selbst wenn sie bis Kalda ausgedehnt worden wäre noch für unabsehbare Zeiten unrentabel bleiben, denn ihr ganzer Plan war verfehlt” (August 15, 1914. Tagebücher 549). “... even if the railway had extended to Kalda it would perforce have remained an unprofitable venture for an indefinite period, for the whole notion of it was wrong; ...”

11. Kafka goes on: “It is this ample nourishment which enables them to multiply so enormously. People sense this and struggle against it; in order to eliminate as much of the ghosts’ power as possible and to attain a natural intercourse, a tranquility of soul, they have invented trains, cars, aeroplanes–but nothing helps anymore: These are evidently inventions devised at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. They will not starve, but we will perish” (Prague, end of March 1922. Letters to Milena 223).

12. The study on “Schreibmaschinen, Sprechmaschinen” by Wolf Kittler exemplifies this in detail: “Technische Medien dieser Art transformieren Aussagen in Fakten. Das heisst, sie verschieben den juristischen Diskurs aus dem Feld der Subjektivität in die Dimension des Objektiven, also von der Achse wahr/falsch auf die Achse richtig/falsch” (Kittler 132).

13. Herrmann Paul’s Deutsches Wörterbuch shows how the complex meaning of the German word Zug is equivalent to the ambiguity of Verkehr: “Die Verhältnisse werden beim Substantiv dadurch verwickelter, dass es nicht nur einen Vorgang bezeichnen kann, sondern auch ein Resultat und den Gegenstand an dem das Ziehen sich vollzieht” (Paul 835).

14. “Wir sind, mit dem irdisch befleckten Auge gesehn, in der Situation von Eisenbahnreisenden, die in einem langen Tunnel verunglückt sind und zwar an einer Stelle wo man das Licht des Anfangs nicht mehr sieht, das Licht des Endes aber nur so winzig, daß der Blick es immerfort suchen muß und immerfort verliert wobei Anfang und Ende nicht einmal sicher sind. Rings um uns aber haben wir in der Verwirrung der Sinne oder in der Höchstempfindlichkeit der Sinne lauter Ungeheuer und ein je nach der Laune und Verwundung des Einzelnen entzückendes oder ermüdendes kaleidoskopisches Spiel.

15. Foell reports the reactions of college students and the crushing reviews of Klassenverhältnisse (Foell 4).

16. Wolfgang Jakobson lists many of them (up to 1984) in “Kafka Adaptionen: Filmografie, Bibliografie” and Leni’s Franz Kafka Page lists them (up to 1997) in “Kafka and the Movies.”

17. As with many other productions the Russian Zamok of 1994 based on The Castle, and the 1998 German-Italian production by Fabrizio Lori Der seltsame Fall des K. based on The Trial, were not accessible.

18. This grid becomes most visible in the scene when K. and his uncle, accompanied by a secretary, leave the monumental hall of the office in a counter direction to the rest of the employees and it is equally evident in the scene where K. is walking through rows of standing people who intentionally remind the audience of concentration camp victims.

19. This film has been dealt with in detail by Böser, Foell, and Schütte.

20. Note for instance, the kind of traffic around the busy lobby and elevators of the Hotel Occidental. This fussy atmosphere was captured by Karl Freund as the cameraman of Murnau’s “Der letzte Mann” in 1924 through the historical tracking movement of the camera: “we ride via the camera down the hotel elevator, move through the bustling lobby, appoach the revolving door (a major symbol of life’s randomness in the film - a sort of existential roulette wheel), and move out to the doorman on the sidewalk in what appears to be a single unbroken shot” (Cook 123).

21. Foell refers to Karl Schmitz’s review of Klassenverhältnisse: “Die tonlose Musikalität alptraumhafter Bilder.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Oct. 1, 1984), 220f.

22. “... a space of lyric subjectivity finally opens at the end of this film. It is a purely visual lyrical: Karl does not speak; there is no voice-over of his thoughts; there is not even music to accompany the images (...)” (Foell 10).

23.The rat recalls the vampyric traffic of Nosferatu as the spell that is cast on the village. Haneke contents himself with using just one cabinet for the files in the major’s house. However in an intertextual allusion to Noelte’s film he turns this cabinet at the end of the scene into a coffin like bin. The files this coffin contains are thus signified as a kind of bureaucratic pestilence.

24. “Das Angebot besteht darin, daß ich als Zuschauer möglicherweise zu der Erkenntnis komme, daß es in meiner Lebensbahn Schienen gibt, die ähnlich verlaufen wie die des Films. Je schrecklicher und auswegloser ich eine Existenz mit hohem Identifikationswert zeige, umso eher fühlt der Zuschauer die Notwendigkeit, seine Kräfte zu aktivieren. Wenn der Schock groß genug ist, wird es vielleicht ein bißchen Veränderung in seinem Leben geben können” (Grissemann / Omasta 2).

© Vera Pohland 2002

Revision: 2011/01/08 - 00:18 - © Mauro Nervi

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