The Castle (1997)

Michael Haneke gives Kafka's The Castle a grim once-over, with sexy results.

Kafkaesque is one of those words that gets chucked around by people desperate to impress with the power of their vocabulary. It means a sense of overwhelming dread at a circumstance or environment entrenched in rules and regulations, inhabited by people who know them better than you. It’s a game where everyone knows how to play except for you. It isolates. It’s Kafka. It’s Haneke. It’s The Castle.

Michael Haneke‘s style is perfect for adapting Kafka – he does the wordless dread of modern life with such skill and panache that it’s no stretch for him to update Kafka to our modern world; that is if the time in The Castle is indeed modern at all. It’s impossible to say really – they have electricity but their clothes are extremely old fashioned. It’s a universe that is recognisably ours but is so alien that it is all the more bothersome. Like the concept of “the uncanny valley” in robotics, whereby the closer a robot’s appearance gets to human, the scarier humans find it, Kafka’s world touches our scared parts because it’s only a few steps crazier than our own. It’s easy to see how his world could evolve from ours.

This fear is Kafka’s stock in trade, and Haneke’s too. With Caché he taught us just how terrifying modern life could be. Same with the The White Ribbon, same with Benny’s Video, same with Funny Games. He does it again in this, an Austrian TV movie recently re-released on DVD by Artificial Eye, and it is stunning. A literary adaption that feels literary, but without being heavy handed about its source material, or too preachy about its themes is a rare beast. The Castle is that beast. It’s an incredibly subtle film, one of constant misunderstandings that compound and expand to isolate, through no fault of his own, K. (and, in doing so, the viewer). We’re with him as he sits alone on a small piece of wood in the snow, trapped between rules and missing pieces of paper. We’re there as he struggles with incompetence on the part of people who will allow no incompetence, the basic human frustration of having to rely on people worse than ourselves, but are better at playing the game.

You get the same funny feeling reading Kafka as you do watching this film, which shows how perfect an adaptation it is – one of enjoyment but also immense frustration, because you’re so drawn into the situation that the characters find themselves in. K., played by the always fantastic Ulrich Muhe, has this frustration and disbelief etched on his face throughout the film, and he never has anything less than our full sympathies at the situation. That’s Kafka’s strength – plotting. And through the plot, the characters emerge. Haneke merely provided the conduit through which this genius could flow onto Austrian TV screens. The Castle is a perfect melding of writer and director.

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