© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Franz Kafka's life wasn't so kafkaesque after all, TV miniseries shows

Max Brod (left), a recognized writer at the time, relentlessly promoted the writings of his friend, Franz Kafka, played here respectively by David Kross and Joel Basman in the Austrian-German series <em>Kafka</em>, now streaming in the U.S.
ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez
/
Superfilm
Max Brod (left), a recognized writer at the time, relentlessly promoted the writings of his friend, Franz Kafka, played here respectively by David Kross and Joel Basman in the Austrian-German series Kafka, now streaming in the U.S.

If you've ever felt powerless when confronted with faceless bureaucracy, confounded by absurd accusations or simply hopeless, chances are the word "kafkaesque" might sum up your situation.

But a television miniseries released in the U.S. this month shows Prague-born author Franz Kafka, whose work inspired the word, as anything but kafkaesque. Tortured recluse he is not here.

Instead, Kafka is a wrangler of labyrinthian bureaucratic systems, so successful in fact that his bosses do all in their power to keep him at home and prevent him from enlisting in World War I. That's the story according to Kafka, a six-part series that was co-produced by Germany's ARD, Austria's ORF and Superfilm.

"We all think we hear of the bureau, or the office, that it's a dark world and it's apocalyptic (for Kafka). But in the real world, it was a paradise," Director David Schalko told NPR's Michel Martin during a joint interview with Joel Basman, who plays the title role.

Schalko said he was inspired to take on the project after reading Reiner Stach's three-volume biography of Kafka, originally published in German between 2002 and 2014. In rejecting the usual tropes of equivocating Kafka's angst-ridden works with the writer's life, Schalko's biopic offers a lush, more humanly complex picture.

Max Brod (David Kross) and his wife Elsa (Tamara Stern) escaped Prague on one of the last trains to leave the city before Nazi forces took control, recognizing the danger to Jews like himself. He carried Franz Kafka's papers with him in a suitcase.<br/>
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
Max Brod (David Kross) and his wife Elsa (Tamara Stern) escaped Prague on one of the last trains to leave the city before Nazi forces took control, recognizing the danger to Jews like himself. He carried Franz Kafka's papers with him in a suitcase.

One perspective per episode

ChaiFlicks, a streaming platform focused on Jewish content, is releasing new episodes weekly since the June 6 U.S. debut. Each episode focuses on a different perspective of Kafka's life.

The first theme is the author's relationship with his close friend Max Brod — who ultimately defied Kafka's wish to have all his manuscripts burned and instead posthumously became his biographer and literary executor.

The other episodes focus on the his (bourgeois) family, three of his lovers and his role as an insurance lawyer.

Kafka's domineering father Hermann (Nicholas Ofczarek) plays a central role in his life and writings.
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
Kafka's domineering father Hermann (Nicholas Ofczarek) plays a central role in his life and writings.

In episode four, Kafka wins successive court cases and contracts for the company. He is held in high esteem by his superiors at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. They also admire his writings and press him to review their own mediocre texts. It's an admiration that Kafka does not reciprocate.

"He was very good rhetorically and he was fighting for the insurance company," Schalko said. "It's not the silent Kafka who is not able to talk in front of other people. It shows a complete different Kafka."

The series alternates between biographical material, historical context and scenes from Kafka's writings.
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
The series alternates between biographical material, historical context and scenes from Kafka's writings.

Basman says he felt compelled in portraying Kafka to "get away from the cliché of him being a depressed person. First of all, he's a funny man. He's got humor. And of course, he's got his issues, and we all got them in our lives, but he was far away from depressed."

A century since Kafka's death

The series' release coincides with the 100th anniversary of Kafka's death this month. And it comes at a time of renewed interest in the writer, who has become an unexpected hot item among a younger generation reflecting on alienation via posts on TikTok.

Just last year, readers could finally access a new translation of Kafka's diaries, by Ross Benjamin. Prior versions relied on a manuscript heavily edited and redacted by Kafka's friend Brod, whose version was polished and removed lewd, homoerotic and unflattering material concerning Kafka and himself.

The unfiltered version shows a more hesitant Kafka who often left his thoughts unfinished mid-sentence — not surprising for an author who never didn't complete the three novels he started and whose characters struggled with the impossibility of finishing tasks.

Kafka's longtime fiancée Felice Bauer (Lia von Blarer, right) got so fed up with his constant equivocation that she confronted him alongside her friend, Grete Bloch (Marie-Luise Stockinger), an event that inspired the novel <em>The Trial</em>.
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
Kafka's longtime fiancée Felice Bauer (Lia von Blarer, right) got so fed up with his constant equivocation that she confronted him alongside her friend, Grete Bloch (Marie-Luise Stockinger), an event that inspired the novel The Trial.

"The feeling to wake up and feel like vermin, like an insect, and feeling the shame and get canceled by the others, is a feeling you know from social media very well," Schalko said, while pointing to arbitrary arrests in Russia as another example.

"He also writes about the bureaucracy and how it feels to be a human being in a system that doesn't see you as a human being. And that's a big issue in our times as well."

In a memorable scene in episode three, Kafka brings home for dinner a traditional Yiddish theater actor he befriended, Yitzhak Löwy. But Kafka's domineering father, Hermann, disapproves and says Löwy is dirty and compares him to an insect.

The confrontation inspired Kafka to write his novella The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into a bug. Kafka had also written a 100-page letter criticizing his father — the closest he came to writing an autobiography — though he neither sent nor published it.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, played by Lars Eidinger, is shown moved to tears after reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into an insect that was inspired by a confrontation between Kafka's domineering father and the writer's Yiddish actor friend Yitzhak Löwy.
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, played by Lars Eidinger, is shown moved to tears after reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into an insect that was inspired by a confrontation between Kafka's domineering father and the writer's Yiddish actor friend Yitzhak Löwy.

"For his father, it was more important to be accepted by the elites of Prague; he tried to maybe even hide his Judaism," Basman said.

The Swiss-born actor says he could relate to this ambiguity in Kafka's family identity because his own father is originally from Israel but he's an atheist.

"I was never Jewish enough, but I also was never Swiss enough... I realized, okay, people want to brand you and if they can't brand you, they don't want you on their team," Basman said.

"I think for Kafka, religion was also just a journey of getting to know himself because it was hidden by his father so strongly that he took this journey by himself."

Kafka was engaged four times and never married, keeping most relationships long-distance via extensive letter-writing. His penultimate relationship was with the writer Milena Jesenská (Liv Lisa Fries), who recognizes his talent.
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
Kafka was engaged four times and never married, keeping most relationships long-distance via extensive letter-writing. His penultimate relationship was with the writer Milena Jesenská (Liv Lisa Fries), who recognizes his talent.

Kafka and women

The women in Kafka's life also left an indelible mark. He was engaged several times but never married. One of his fiancées was Felice Bauer, Brod's cousin. The pair meet and only get to know each superficially before Kafka sends her hundreds of agonizing letters for months on end, through an initial parting, a second engagement and a final breakup.

Fed up with Kafka's constant equivocation, Bauer at one point confronts him, letters in hand, with her friend Grete Bloch — another recipient of letters from Kafka — by her side. The episode drawn from the writer's life inspired his novel The Trial, published posthumously in 1925.

The protagonist Joseph K. navigates an absurdly complex bureaucratic system and makes mistakes that make him look guilty of an unknown crime for which he is put on trial and then executed "like a dog."

Two men in leather coats (Raimund Wallisch, left, and Gerhard Liebmann) lurk in the background, a representation of the angst and absurdities of bureaucracy that concerned Kafka.
Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez / Superfilm
/
Superfilm
Two men in leather coats (Raimund Wallisch, left, and Gerhard Liebmann) lurk in the background, a representation of the angst and absurdities of bureaucracy that concerned Kafka.

Kafka is available to stream on ChaiFlicks. New episodes will release weekly.

The broadcast version of this story was produced by Mansee Khurana. The digital version was edited by Obed Manuel.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]