Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations) Review

An adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel Amerika - unfinished, like all of his novels – Straub and Huillet’s Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations) is perhaps the only adaptation of Kafka that comes close to the Czech writer’s singular view of the world. As their changing of the book’s original title indicates however (Kafka intended to call the novel Der Verschollene (The Man who Disappeared) but it was changed to Amerika by his literary executor Max Brod), the French filmmakers regard the struggle and oppression of the typical Kafka individual from faceless authority and bureaucracy as a class struggle - and where else but America to show the individual struggling against the forces of capitalism on such a vast scale?

Sent to America by his parents to avoid a family scandal, Karl Rossmann (Christian Heinisch) - already a victim of the authority of his parents and their notions of social propriety - finds himself in this new land forced into a number of awkward, embarrassing and confusing situations that seem to increasingly extend beyond his control into nightmarish proportions. Klassenverhältnisse drops you straight into one of those situations at the start of the film when, immediately upon arrival in New York – already wrong-footed by having misplaced his case and umbrella – Rossmann gets involved in a dispute between the stoker and the chief machinist. The nature of the dispute is complicated with personal and race issues, but without seeming to know all the details of the affair, Rossmann finds himself taking the side of the stoker and pleading his case with the head-cashier in front of the captain, to little avail. This type of situation - one that is typical for characters in all Kafka’s novels - is repeated throughout.

In the captain’s cabin, Rossmann by chance meets his uncle Jakob (Mario Adorf), a Senator and self-made businessman, who becomes a new figure of authority and guidance to Rossmann – one of several the young man will encounter. The Senator warns Karl of the necessity to know his place, but with the right education and opportunities, he can be expected to work his own way up the social ladder. Events however continually conspire to keep the young man uncertain of his position and the correct way to behave, particularly in regards to those in authority. He attempts throughout to assert his own independence, finding his own work and avoiding those who would seek to hold him back – like a couple workers he meets, Robinson and Delamarche (Manfred Blank and Harun Farocki) – eventually finding a job as an elevator boy (in Kafka’s original novel, he has to manage a nightmarish 30 elevators at once). Harsh restrictions on his freedom of movement – the manner in which he employs his free time is even monitored - and unwritten rules regarding deference towards his superiors, continually keep Rossmann in a precarious and lowly servile position, capable of being dismissed on a whim.

Klassenverhältnisse retains the prevalent theme and tone of Kafka’s work - an air of paranoia, a fear of authority, of being unaware of all the facts and not behaving in the correct way, of not knowing one’s rightful place and of being unable to persuade one’s case to a distant, uncaring authority. Being set in America, one would expect Kafka’s to be looking beyond the confines of his oppressive life, upbringing and employment towards a new beginning, but there is never any sense of Kafka’s America being the land of opportunity that it is for so many other immigrants. Apart from a view of the Statue of Liberty at the start of the film (not the real one), there are no vistas of grand buildings or wide open spaces in Klassenverhältnisse. Kafka’s America rather is just another representation of society as a trap for the individual, keeping them restrained through fear of infringing bewildering laws, regulations, or even the etiquette of the most commonplace social situation that everyone else seems to be aware of and capable of adhering to, but not Rossmann. Only towards the end of the film, when he sets off with the Oklahoma Theatre Company is there is some indication that Rossmann’s horizons are expanding, but Kafka’s planned ending, showing the young man finding his role in life and even being reconciled eventually with his parents, was never written by the author.

Straub and Huillet remain utterly faithful to these themes in Kafka, not only in accordance with the words and action, but in the whole oppressive, nightmarish quality of the work. Their simple, direct, sparse depictions of each scene is seemingly inexpressive and static, but in reality every detail, gesture and word is carefully measured, with blocked-off vistas, closed-in rooms and locked doors that leave Rossmann little sense of freedom. Even in one of the few outdoor sequences in the film where Rossmann has just been dismissed from employment, he immediately finds himself pursued down the street by a policeman. The filmmaker’s style is therefore utterly appropriate here – keeping the elements that are essentially Kafka unadorned by stylisation, exaggeration or interpretation – even though this inevitably introduces some measure of the drudgery and tedium under which Kafka’s characters operate.

That’s not to say that Straub and Huillet remain entirely impartial, since the film’s title, Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations), clearly signals their position towards and reading of the original text. Although Kafka’s dark, poetic vision of the world is not described in such realist or social terms, class relations and the capitalist order are very much the mainstays of that oppressive system that weighs heavily on individuals in his stories. Without overemphasis – the very first image of the film perhaps being the only direct comment by the filmmakers themselves – Straub and Huillet allow these themes to arise from the poetic richness and psychological veracity of Kafka’s inner vision and bring them into the real world.

Klassenverhältnisse is released as a 2-DVD set by Editions Filmmuseum, a label created in collaboration between the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna and the Munich Filmmuseum to promote classic and modern German language works of artistic merit. The film is in PAL format, both discs are dual-layer, and the set is not region encoded. The DVD can be purchased directly from - Editions Filmmuseum.

Clearly a new print taken form the original negative, the image quality is beautiful, with William Lubtchasky’s marvellous black-and-white cinematography superbly toned. Some minor brightness flicker may be evident from the telecine process and whites are occasionally a little pale, lacking full detail, but the majority of the film looks most impressive, with scarcely a mark on the print. The image is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but is unnecessarily windowboxed on all sides in the same manner as Criterion releases.

The original German audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is also just about flawless – clear and well-toned with no notable issues.

Optional English subtitles are included, but do not provide a full translation. Since the subtitling was supervised and directed according to the filmmaker’s specifications, this would seem to be an intentional choice. Although in practice, the dropping of a few lines every now and again seems to make little difference, it’s a somewhat strange conceit and it can be quite annoying.

There are a number of substantial extra features on this 2-disc set. Work on Class Relations (1:04:27) is a behind-the-scenes film made by Harun Farocki (Delamarche), covering the rehearsals and filming of a number of scenes in detail. It gives some idea of the precision with which the filmmakers refine their vision, but focussing on the how rather than the why, the feature is of limited value at this length. In How Merrily I Shall Laugh (41:42), Manfred Blank (Robinson) interviews Straub and Huillet, discussing their relationship with the film, (considering their status as French exiles working in Germany), as well as the style the acting choices, structure, method and perspective employed in the film. Work In Progress (19:41) is an analysis of “sign structure and rhetoric” in the opening scenes of Klassenverhältnisse, comparing the final scene with alternative unused takes. 44 Production Stills are also included.

The DVD-ROM section on Disc One promised great treasures, including the original handwritten screenplay by Jean-Marie Straub, shooting script by Huillet and Straub, the shooting schedule, an interview and press conference with and Straub, and a book about the film by Wolfram Schuette. Sadly, all of these texts are in German only. An enclosed booklet is also mostly in German, with only a brief essay in English describing the aforementioned subtitling issues.

Too often, filmmakers take the nightmarish qualities of Kafka’s work and use it as a powerful tool to deepen their own vision of the individual who is bowed but not beaten by an absurd, cruel and oppressive world order. It’s a valid method and often very effective in the hands of a director with an imaginative, dark vision of the world - but it’s not Kafka. Straub and Huillet’s Klassenverhältnisse presents Kafka in a purer manner than most, allowing the essential qualities and themes of his work to seep into their view of the world and hopefully touch a chord with the viewer. The perennial difficulties of putting pure Kafka on the screen remain however (much as they do with reading Kafka) – the sense of comic absurdity in his work, its fragmentary nature and use of ellipsis, the lack of clear narrative thread in an unfinished work (Amerika furthermore not being Kafka’s best work), and the tedium with which it describes the repetitiveness and drudgery of the nature of our existence. I’m not convinced that there is anything more to be gained from watching Klassenverhältnisse than can be derived from one’s own reading of Amerika, but the filmmakers approach here is fascinating and hypnotic, and with some patience on the part of the viewer, it can certainly be a rewarding experience.

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