Paranoia in movies — men darting around street corners with a quick glance over the shoulder, lots of inky, who-knows-what-lurks-in-the-shadows cinematography — used to be very hip at film festivals. Utilizing a few standard punk-expressionist tricks, aspiring directors could establish a mood of edgy, caffeine-jag anxiety and at the same time flaunt their visual chops, re-creating earlier styles of cinema wizardry. Steven Soderbergh’s grim folly Kafka is like a feature-length version of one of those existential film-school masterpieces. The movie is MTV Kafka: Instead of dialogue, character, behavior, it has a look and a mood. And that’s all it has.
As Kafka, who’s presented as a cross between the author and one of his bedeviled protagonists, Jeremy Irons retreats to his upper-class dullness. Sullen, repressed, and dimly melancholic, Irons — at least in this mode — seems to put all his energy into enunciating. There isn’t much to his performance beyond the impeccable Etonian spin he gives to words like ”isss-ue.” The movie is framed as a murder mystery, but for a solid hour it is almost completely without interest. Then Kafka enters the castle on the edge of town, where he discovers a mad scientist (Ian Holm) conducting Nazi/Orwellian brain experiments. This stuff is as luridly cheesy as can be; a viewer can’t help but perk up. The black-and-white cinematography converts to late ’60s color, the sets look like cardboard imitations of the ones in Brazil, and Soderbergh, it’s clear, has no idea that his movie about Kafka ends up turning into an homage to Roger Corman. D+