The Kafka’s way

Franz Kafka

How much of our (storytellers, screenwriters, directors) primary concern should be transparent in our narratives? Should our intent or obsessions be fully disclosed in the tales we spin?

The audience may not necessarily want to be led by hand, which is the case when a screen or a page turns into medium to primarily transfer information or diagnosis. The audience wants an experience (not knowledge). For that it needs space for (emotional) movement, a necessary element of any experience.

That Kafka is a genius we all know. Encounter with his works shatters our souls and minds. Only the passage of time, pressures of our daily lives and the barrage of sometimes petty, sometimes not so petty human dramas eases the inner turmoil caused by Franz.

So what does “The process” mean? Why is it so disquieting, so devastating, so shocking? A tint of metaphysics, a hefty dose of surreal, a social satire, a psychological vivisection - it’s all there. But what’s the primary engine that drives the narrative?

Milan Kundera in his awesome “Testaments Betrayed” warns against attempts to figure out the meaning in Franz’s Kafka works. For Kundera asking questions like “what does it mean” or “what does Kafka want to say” is plain ridiculous. Such efforts miss the point, flatten his artistic scope and cheapen the Kafka’s experience.

On the other hand Karl Erich Grozinger in his “Kafka und die Kabbala” convincingly shows the ties between “The process” and the cabala tradition of seeing our existence as the subject of the ongoing metaphysical judgment. Grozinger amply quotes chassidic scholars whose images and structures have striking similarities to the scenes and events used by Kafka in “The process”.

After reading Grozinger there is no doubt that Kafka, intensely participating in the life of Jewish Prague, was enveloped in the chassidic metaphysics. Yet his writing does not immediately reflect that. The scholars place the eternal process in the majestic and imposing “heavens”. Kafka locates the same in the everyday, the gray, the cheap and the dirty. He removes all transparently ethnic and religious indications but keeps a bare bone assumption central to the cabala - that all our deeds are constantly evaluated and judged by the Higher Court. That our existence is in fact the subject for an ongoing judgment. That our faulty souls are eternally judged in the process. That all of us are guilty.

Perhaps the Kafka’s storytelling lesson is to keep the transcendental core of a story hidden. Or to stripe one of our inner torments of its religious and cultural “clothes” and present it raw. Or to mix the metaphysical with the mundane.

Now that I know what Kafka wanted to say in “The process” his prose remains as intriguing and inspiring as before. Luckily no amount of analysis can destroy meeting a masterpiece.


Should she wake up?

The Sixth Sense
written and directed M. Night Shyamalan

“The sixth sense” even (or especially) on the repeated viewing makes a huge impression. When the plot is nearing its resolution we wait for two revelations about the boy’s abilities. By this time we all know that his mom and his friend psychologists would need to face his sixth sense. We know that it’s not going to be easy, as it counters reason and both “recipients” have been drawn as logical and sensible people.

The revelation to his mother I would place among the best scenes ever written for the screen. I think it works so powerfully because the script does not leave time for the mother to buckle over his preposterous claim (“I see dead people.”) The information about the grandma he provides is so emotional, so right and so to the point that she does not have time to reason. The scene races, even though they just sit inside the car. The speed comes from her feeling torment, astonishment, relief and finally closure.

The same emotional ride needs to meet the psychologist. The scene pivots on a technicality (the wedding ring) which triggers the explanation illustrated by flashbacks and much running around by Bruce Willis. It all works, closes the narrative, everybody understands the point, the properly shocked public gets its “narrative satisfaction”.

Yet, I can’t stop thinking that the two revelations are not on the same storytelling level. What Willis is asked to do in this scene does not provide him with the same “playing field” that the mother got, neither offers it to the wife. The limitation comes from the decision that the wife needs to be asleep and turned away. The psychologist follows the boy’s hint to talk to his wife when she is asleep. That’s a great devise, but the way it’s written/directed results in the characters not looking at each other at the most important situation of their emotional life.


.... what if this final confrontation changes into a face to face situation. Another words: they “talk” much as it’s now, then the wife turns around and wakes up. Now both are looking at each other. Yet she, awakened, can’t see him.

It is then, looking right into her face, watching and trying to make sense of her reaction he realizes what’s going on. Then without moving away he can do his closure face to face with her. It would give both plenty to explore as actors. And the flashbacks and the ring are still within the scene.

Yet, they clearly rejected this idea.


Words and images

a scene from a book “Winter in the morning”
written by Janina Bauman

Nina Chrzanowska as “Janina”
director Pawel Kuczynski

An upcoming documentary on Zygmunt Bauman will include a few scenes from “Winter in the morning” by Janina Bauman. The book inspired “Modernity and the Holocaust”, hence an attempt to explore the relationship between the two titles: the Warsaw Ghetto memoir and the ground breaking sociological treatise.

In staging the “Winter” scenes we wanted to pay tribute to the written word. At the same time we knew that the exact presentation of that which the off screen voice reads would result in a mere illustration. This would diminish both worlds and images and produce a lame scene.

While playing with the footage it became clear that any slight gap between the voice and the corresponding images would open up the scene, allowing for some air. It would trigger the imagination and make the perception active.

Perhaps such “non illustrative” approach is healthy not only when one has to join a text off screen with its visual representation but also when any text, any script has to be manifested visually.

That would mean that a goal of a narrative visual storytelling is not to show the content but to trigger imagination so it can enter the content.

The shot above by Andrzej Belina Brzozowski. Some "making off" material from the production is here.