Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 21 April 2008
Source Kino Video DVD
Michael Haneke’s career has very neatly split into two, between the films financed and made in his native Austria up to the end of the nineties and then the internationally- (mainly French-) financed films from Code Unknown on. You could argue for a greater authenticity to the Austrian films in their closer engagement with Haneke’s cultural and linguistic roots, but in fact the later films comprise his more interesting work, even if that French financing can on occasion lead to less than ideal results, such as in the otherwise superb Piano Teacher which mixes in this Vienna-set story French leading actors with Austrian actors too obviously dubbed from German into French.
In The Castle, surely the least well-known of Haneke’s early films, and one made for television to boot, we have what seems to me far and away the best of his Austrian films. Admittedly, my appreciation of The Castle plays against the background of the reservations I have about those other Austrian films, the Trilogy of Glaciation - The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance - and Funny Games. As much as I think Haneke deserves our admiration for the seriousness and intensity of his work, I’ve never been able to take to its hectoring tone, the mixture of Haneke’s arrogant intellectual and moral superiority on the one hand and the often crass obviousness of his arguments and narrative/thematic devices on the other. When Haneke, for example, labels as hypocrites those who took issue with the horse-killing scene in Time of the Wolf, he seems blind to the weaknesses of his own moral-aesthetic position; indeed, that scene (shot in a slaughterhouse and edited into a fictional sequence) is as manipulative of an audience as the genre cinema that Haneke despises and sets himself up in opposition to. And such devices as the surprise film-within-a-film scenes in Code Unknown or the frankly banal overlay of TV news broadcasts (still being used as late as CachÃƒÂ©) are predictable, thin, and one-dimensional—and crassly _un_original.
But the strength of his Austrian work of the nineties lies in its rigorous form, the iron grip that Haneke places on his shot construction, the restricted focus of the compositions (e.g. the close-ups on objects at the start of The Seventh Continent), the way he favours medium shots to tie in his characters with their environment, and the long-take aesthetic (taken to extremes, for example, in the ping-pong playing scene in 71 Fragments). There’s a real pleasure to be found in the style of these films, and it’s this style that Haneke has applied to his adaptation of Kafka’s unfinished novel.
While there’s an inevitable reduction in adapting the density of the novel to a two-hour film - incidents of plot are excised, characters go, others are made far less important - Haneke provides a faithful version of Kafka’s story. Main character K. arrives in a snowbound village attached administratively to a nearby castle that we never see (Kafka does describe the castle whereas Haneke allows its absence from his narrative to accrue increasing symbolic weight). K.’s come to take up a position as a land surveyor which, after some confusion, is officially confirmed, but no work eventuates, and K. begins to devote his energies to contacting an important castle official, Klamm. He soon takes up with Klamm’s mistress Frieda but his continuing failure to generate any official response from the Castle parallels his own slide in fortunes, from being granted and then losing the job of school janitor to ending up homeless and spending the night in a hotel corridor in a fruitless attempt to appeal to another Castle official.
Of course, faithfulness can only take you so far with Kafka, as any cinematic adaptation can’t hope to match the density of Kafka’s language, the way the sentences twist and turn and draw K. - and the reader with him - down into an ever-circling vortex of confusion, frustration, and despair. Even an English translation of the novel is inadequate, never quite being able to convey the tone of the original German, for example the frequent use of the subjunctive mood that adds yet another layer of distancing thickness to the text. Still, Haneke does a great job at trying to find cinematic ways of matching the feel of Kafka’s original.
One feature of this is the frequent use of a narrator’s voice-over. Although there still seems to be a belief that a recourse to voice-over is somehow “non-cinematic”, there are plenty examples of how productive its use can be—above all in what I guess is Haneke’s model here, Diary of a Country Priest. In The Castle this voice-over narration will move quickly from straight redundancy - a repetition of dialogue we hear from the actors on the screen or glimpse through their lip-movements - to an extended narrative of dialogue exchanges that we never see acted out. There is a strange dissonance to this, which is at one with the disturbing sense of the world that K. experiences but which also, more importantly, pulls us out of an easy identification with K. This identification would otherwise be a natural one as from start to finish we experience everything through K.’s eyes; his struggles to make sense of the world he has entered, to assert himself as a site of meaning, are a surrogate for our own efforts to make sense of the scenes passing before our eyes.
But it’s important that in the end we be kept from identifying with K. The voice-overs (which also offer a more distanced interpretation of K.’s actions) work towards this, as do other stylistic features of the film: the fragmenting of scenes into isolated, hard-to-relate shots; the use of long takes and long-shots; the long tracking shots that follow K. struggling back and forth through the snow and wind outside; and, most significantly, the constant abrupt cuts to black. This all feeds into our increasing sense of K. as hardly the innocent victim of bureaucratic obduracy that he makes himself out as. Certainly not “innocent.”
It’s true that initially K. appears as a victim of his situation, confronted as he is in the very first scene with the suspicion and downright hostility of the villagers. As he’s told by the landlady (a more important figure in the novel; in fact, unlike the film, Kafka’s unfinished novel ends on a scene with her): “You’re not from the Castle or the village. You aren’t anything […] a stranger, superfluous, and in everybody’s way.” At first, we can read this xenophobia towards K. as the cause of his dilemma, his rejection by so many of the villagers, and his failure to break through the bureaucratic wall of indifference that the Castle sets up around itself.
Yet increasingly we become aware that K.’s character failings are also at issue here, his solipsism, his self-centredness, his arrogance, and his blindness. His passage through the film is marked by his repeated willingness to use other people, on the smaller level (his sudden disinterest in the trials of Castle messenger Barnabas’ family when he sees they can’t help him now) and on the larger—above all, with Frieda. It’s made quite clear that for him Frieda is interchangeable with any other similar woman. He takes up with her because she is the mistress of Klamm, a senior Castle official, and when he meets Pepi, Frieda’s replacement at the inn, we’re explicitly told by the narrator that he would have made similar approaches to Pepi had he suspected her of having any connection with the Castle.
Throughout the film K. is told how he has offended various people in the village and Castle. In the main, this comes across as an extension of the existential absurdity of K.’s situation, where his attempts to make sense of this situation only lead to a spiral of ever worsening circumstances. But we can only concur when the landlady accuses K. of betrayal of Frieda. There’s a key scene where Haneke holds on Frieda’s pained face as she overhears K.’s desperate, lying attempts to establish through the cobbler’s son a connection with his mother who works in the Castle. They’re lies that are in effect directed as much to Frieda as to the young boy himself, and they come after scenes of humiliation in the school room which reveal first K.’s criminal passivity (there’s truth in the schoolmaster’s mocking of him as one “who cowardly allows other people to be falsely accused of his own shabby deeds”) and then his blindness to the people around him when Frieda reveals his assistants’ love for her.
If there’s one thing that distinguishes The Castle from Haneke’s other films, it’s the tonal feature he’s taken from Kafka—humour, however dark it may be. This is a relief after the high-minded seriousness and hectoring, humourless dogmatism of the films Haneke has made from his own original screenplays. (I mean here the other Austrian films of the nineties; the later French-language films can be equally intense but simply breathe more to the ebb and flow of the complexities of characterisation. I haven’t seen his U.S. remake of Funny Games, but this would appear to be an inevitable throwback to the nineties work and as pointless an exercise as the original.)
This humour can take minor isolated forms, in the way the radio in the inn is randomly turned on and off to drily comic effect in the middle of K. and Barnabas’ conversation; or later there’s a similar device with the banal accordion music that plays mockingly in the background of K. and Frieda’s discussion on the landing outside their room. There are longer comic set-pieces—in the Herrenhof taproom the curious contrast between the stillness of K. and Frieda in the foreground and the wildly carousing servants in the background; the bizarre sight of Frieda driving those servants out into the snow; and the playing-out of Frieda’s conversation with the innkeeper about K., shot from floor-level as K. lies flat next to Frieda’s legs (“Perhaps he’s hidden down here” - bending down to kiss him - “No, he’s not there”).
There are also the Keystone Cop antics of K’s two assistants, bumping and jostling one another, comically interchangeable, and who we’ll later see, when K. expels them from the schoolroom, calling for Frieda and leaping up and down into window-view from the snow outside. The assistants have the film’s central comic set-piece when they accompany K. on a visit to the Superintendent and proceed to “assist” his wife in searching for a missing document, rolling about on the huge spilled pile of documents on the floor, then pulling the now-empty closet flat on the floor, packing it with the documents, and pulling it upright again. All this as simply the background to the Superintendent’s serious discussion with K. of bureaucratic intricacies.
These comic elements work to spring surprises on us, keep us on our toes, in the same way that the characters shift and twist in ways that we can’t predict. This is very far from the programmatic effect in Haneke’s other early films, where everything is tightly knitted together to further his thematic ends—the filmmaker as ultimate puppermaster, pulling on the strings of his restrained creations. The success of The Castle in a sense lies in the way it allows Haneke to escape the limitations which in other films he’s intellectually imposed on both himself and his characters, and even when the film explicitly frustrates us - above all, ending in mid-sentence with an added, final title, “This is the end of Franz Kafka’s fragment” - it’s a frustration that’s also very satisfying.