The Castle Review
Made for Austrian television in 1997 - the same year that he would make his feature Funny Games - Michael Haneke’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s ‘Das Schloss’ sees the director working with adapted material that chimes entirely with a personal worldview we have come to know from films like The Seventh Continent, Code Unknown and Hidden (Caché), depicting individuals buckling under the increasingly cold and uncaring mechanical progress of modern society. Using many of the same actors who feature in Funny Games, it presents an intriguing parallel to the director’s breakthrough feature film.
Kafka’s unfinished novel ‘Das Schloss’, follows the activity of one such alienated individual trying to make sense of the innumerable and unfathomable levels of bureaucracy to find his own place and position in the world. K. (Ulrich Mühe) arrives in the village that surrounds the Castle as a stranger. Finding an inn, he is unable to obtain a room, but the innkeeper allows him to sleep on a mattress in the parlour of the bar. His intrusion is seen as unwelcome and Schwarzer, the son of the under-Castellan, challenges him, regarding him as a vagabond. A quick call however reveals that K. has been engaged by the Castle as a Land Surveyor.
K.’s assistants Jeremias and Artur (Felix Eitner and Frank Giering) arrive the next day, but rather than assist K., who finds them indistinguishable, the incompetent duo, arriving without his apparatus, seem to hamper his every attempt to make contact with the Castle, and always seem to be following him around. Even when K. attempts to gain the influence of Frieda (Susanne Lothar), a barmaid who tells him she is the mistress of a prominent Castle official called Klamm, the hapless duo spy on him as he makes love to her behind the bar.
As a consequence, Frieda loses her position at the Herrenhof bar, and K., under pressure from his landlady, finds he has no option but to support her while he tries to find out what work he has been engaged by the Castle to carry out. Those instructions never seem to arrive, and indeed the Castle continually refuses, via letters and messages that Klamm’s assistant Barnabas (André Eisermann) communicates to K., to allow him entrance to the Castle. Frustrated, K. finds out from the Superintendent that the summoning of a Land Surveyor was an administrative error, and his services are no longer required. As no-one however is in a position to confirm his appointment or admit the error, K. finds himself in a curious position of having status but no position. With no other option – particularly as he is under pressure from Frieda and his landlady - K. accepts a lowly position as a janitor at the local school. His troubles with various women continually distract him from his task, and any attempt to approach and appeal to the Castle continue to be met with indifference, obstinacy and bogged down in bureaucratic red-tape.
As would be expected from the director at this point in his career, Haneke’s now familiar style is appropriate to the subject, adopting a neutral approach marked out by jump cuts to black screens. The gaps however are not Kafka’s - The Castle is perhaps the writer’s most fluid and consistent work, and only incomplete in that it never reached a conclusion. Haneke however makes use of his trademark method here rather to cut back on the length of certain scenes, excising a number of minor characters and reducing others - the landlady’s role is greatly reduced and it removes many of her and K.’s cross-purpose confrontations - but it matches the curious elliptical rhythms and the dreamlike passing of immeasurable periods of time in Kafka’s novel. Haneke of course fully exploits the fact that the novel is open and unfinished – as most of his own films are – taking pleasure in bringing the film to an unexpected conclusion as the end of the manuscript, even though it is not the one (again featuring the landlady) that finishes the novel. Haneke’s way of showing K. attempting to make headway against the constant grind of the machinery of bureaucracy and the petty social hierarchy, is to show him trudging repeatedly back and forth through the snow and howling winds, often in the dark – waiting for the smallest scrap of information or news from the Castle, that they have need of him or at least recognition of him.
It’s a perfectly adequate way to depict Kafka’s struggle of the individual to find their place in society, but it’s also a failure, as is any attempt to capture the essence of Kafka on the screen. The best any director can do with Kafka’s absurd, nightmarish and unfilmable works is find elements from them to incorporate into their own worldview - as in Soderbergh’s fun-but-missing-the-point Kafka – or vice-versa, as in Orson Welles’ ambitious, often impressive, but ultimately doomed adaptation and re-writing of The Trial. Haneke’s adaptation of The Castle is more literal and faithful to Kafka than either of those films, but he never makes it come alive or personal in the way that he can usually lift a storyline off the screen and into your own life. A narrator is used to maintain some of the authorial musings on the characters and their behaviour, but more often Haneke depicts events with neutrality and lack of comment, which allows him to capture Kafka’s sense of the absurdity of social behaviour, but fails to capture the complexity of the characters’ deeper striving for belonging and spiritual meaning. Haneke would achieve this element of humanity much more successfully in Time Of The Wolf, but, perhaps through the necessity of adaptation and simplification for television, he fails to do so here.
The Castle is released in the France by Art Malta as Le Château. The DVD is Region 2 encoded and is in PAL format. It’s a budget release, and the quality of the DVD, which comes in a slimline case, is similarly basic. The Castle is presented in its original German version, as it was made for Austrian TV, and has optional French subtitles. There are no English subtitles on the disc.
The video quality on this French release is not particularly good. The 1.78:1 image is presented letterboxed, without anamorphic enhancement. The image is soft and grainy and there is cross-colouration and the flicker of blocky compression artefacts throughout in the backgrounds. Colours are a bit flat and murky, show colour bleed and have a faint greenish tinge. Haneke often uses cool colour schemes, but the impression here is that the film ought to look closer to the darkness and flames colour scheme of Time Of The Wolf. Unfortunately, The Castle doesn’t come close to the clarity of the UK Region 2 release of that film. Brightly lit scenes and exteriors are certainly more than adequate, but interiors are not terribly clear at all - and it’s often dark here. Overall though, none of this matters particularly much since there are no real marks or damage on the print and little that prevents the viewer from distinguishing relatively clearly what is going on. Apart from the lack of English subtitles of course.
The audio track, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is generally fine. Obviously in a Haneke film there is little that stands out from what is usually an almost mono mix, but here at least there is a wider use of sound and effects than would normally be expected. Tone and clarity are good and convey the atmosphere of the piece well.
There are no English subtitles provided with this French release. The film can be viewed only with the original German soundtrack and the choice of optional French subtitles.
An Interview with Michael Haneke (8:58), in French, comes randomly and fortuitously with fixed English subtitles. Haneke talks about the challenge and difficulty of adapting Kafka to the screen, and explains that his approach for TV would be different from a cinematic adaptation. Typically, he won’t be drawn on what the metaphor of the Castle means to him, and goes as far as not even representing it on the screen (although Kakfa - a much greater artist - does actually describe it as a physical place in the novel without it losing any of its symbolic value).
An Interview with Kafka expert Jean-Pierre Morel (12:52), in French with no subtitles, places Kafka’s novel in the context of his other work and looks at other Kafka adaptations, evaluating Haneke’s version here.
The remaining extra features are made up of a Filmography of Michael Haneke, including his Austrian television work and a Trailer for Time of the Wolf (1:33).
The Castle is as intriguing and complementary as you would imagine a Haneke adaptation of Kafka would be – Kafka’s work being entirely open and unfinished, touching on archetypes and modes of human behaviour to which many interpretations can be applied. Haneke typically tries to maintain distance in his almost to-the-letter adaptation of Kafka’s work, bringing his usual precision and intensity to the film. Unfortunately, Haneke’s neutrality here fails to draw any deeper metaphor out of an incredibly rich work, and worse – perhaps through necessity of omission through adaptation - it loses Kafka’s deeper examination of the human aspirations and motivations that underpin it. The film doesn’t seem to be available in any English-language friendly edition at the moment, but with Haneke’s stature and reputation growing considerably, I suspect we won’t have to put up with this rather mediocre French edition for long.