I’ve just re-watched Steven Soderbergh‘s Kafka (’91), a half-spooky, half-gloomy noir that looks and feels like early 1920s German expressionism. It’s mostly and appropriately shot in black-and-white, but it’s such a downer to sit through that it almost feels euphoric when the film suddenly shifts into color during the last 15 minutes or so.

Written by Lem Dobbs and handsomely shot by Walt Lloyd, the Prague-set period flick (1919) fictionalizes the adventures of the fearful and paranoid Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) as he attempts to uncover the dark plottings of a creepy cabal of ne’er-do-wells who operate out of “the castle” that overlooks the city.

Kafka didn’t go down too well when it opened 31 years ago, and I can’t say it works any better today.

Irons overdoes the anxious, often terrified, bug-eyed thing. After a while you’re saying “Jesus, will you stop twitching and glaring and play it cool for a change?…channel some Lee Marvin and at least pretend to be a man.”

Okay, it’s not that bad. I was bored, yes, but I didn’t hate sitting through it. It’s just that my heart rate went down.

It’s a serious shame that an HD version isn’t streamable. The 480P version that I watched today looks awful…so soft and bleary at times that it almost seems out of focus.

Sometime in ’21 Soderbergh created a new version of Kafka, titled Mr. Kneff. Re-cut, re-imagined and dialogue-free with subtitles. It screened at the Toronto Film Festival that year, and was supposed to be released as part of a Soderbergh box set sometime in late ’21 or maybe sometime in ’22. It never happened, but I’m told the box set will show its face sometime…aahh, who knows? But maybe later this year.

The climactic final act of Kafka abandons black-and-white for color (which my eyes rather enjoyed) and becomes a kind of Indiana Jones film. Briefly.

Irons enjoyed a great big-screen run of A-quality films between the early ’80s and mid ’90s — roughly 12 or 13 years. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Moonlighting, Betrayal, Swann in Love, Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune, Kafka, Damage, M. Butterfly, The House of the Spirits. In ’84 I saw Irons opposite Glenn Close in the first Broadway version of The Real Thing. He was the absolute king of the world back then.

I’ve enjoyed re-reading my second-hand (i.e., possibly inaccurate to some extent) story about Irons and temporary Kafka costar Anne Parillaud. The piece was initially initially posted in 2009.