By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Haneke’s “The Castle,” Kino, 1997]
The ascension of Michael Haneke of late has been a blessing in a number of ways already, including the DVDization of his notoriously cold-blooded earlier films (notably, “Funny Games,” “Benny’s Video” and “The Seventh Continent”). But the vaults are just opening up: Haneke’s years of work for Austrian TV remain unimported (including films in an episodic series entitled “Lemmings,” no relation to the National Lampoon skit show of yore), but now we can see his dry-eyed romp on Kafka, 1997’s “The Castle.” Things Kafkaesque have long been as rich pickings for cinema as they have been everywhere else (including, ironically, given the source, several operas), but none of the mere handful of adaptations of this, the great uneasy Czech’s richest and biggest, albeit unfinished, work, are as ingeniously faithful to their source as Haneke’s. It’s a low-budget, streamlined vision, as gritty and cramped as other Kafka films (even Orson Welles’s fascinating version of “The Trial”) are grandiose and lurid.
The odyssey of self-righteous and clueless land surveyor K. in the social nightmare that is the village surrounding the unseen castle, to which K. can never quite arrive or receive clear communications from, is shot in an indecorous, washed-out palette that evokes Jan Švankmajer’s films sunshine is nonexistent, surfaces are timeworn and rough, rooms are cheap, decaying and claustrophobically small. This is not the Kafka of surreal juxtapositions but of dusty, bureaucratic bad-dreamness, Byzantine but unwritten social rules and arbitrary governmental cruelty. Haneke virtually transcribes the book, emphasizing not Kafka’s now-mythic metaphors but his cut-to-the-bone mundaneity (another Švankmajerism, and it’s surprising to note that the prolific Czech animator has never adapted Kafka himself). In Kafka’s writing, essential anxiety isn’t supposed to be “felt,” viscerally, by the reader, but observed from a wry, appalled distance, and it’s this sense that Haneke nails despite the fact that often the dithering irrationality of “The Castle”‘s paranoid minions is so in your face you can smell the clammy sweat.
It is, in the end, a comedy whose chuckles dissolve like hopeful thoughts before they come clear of your throat. The unwashed cast handles Kafka’s cloggy dialogue with a conviction that sometimes borders on the manic, with the exception of the late Ulrich Mühe (of “The Lives of Others”) as K., exuding hilarious waves of maddened frustration and suspicion with sad, watchful eyes and a perfectly straight face. Having seen “The Castle” and, like its hero, failed to get comfortable and secure in its secretive spaces, you feel as if you’ve genuinely been there, in the rundown, petty-power-distorted Mitteleuropan villages of Kafka’s bitter memories.
Madness isn’t at all grounded in tangible reality in sadistic Japanese pulp-nut Teruo Ishii’s “Horrors of Malformed Men” (1969), now unleashed on unsuspecting psychotronic-philes, pining as they are wont to do for a forgotten absurdity that was never even seen outside of Japan until 2003’s selective festival tour. (The DVD supplements include interviews with contemporary Japanese auteurs like Shinya Tsukamoto, dazedly recalling their childhood experience of seeing it.) Based on an Edogawa Rampo tale, the film begins as an amnesiac-wrong-man nightmare (which, like “Ringu,” finds its mysteries on one of Japan’s many alluringly remote islands), and then sidles into an anti-übermensch version of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But there’s little reason to have faith in a story that lurches and twitches like a junkie in withdrawal, and not to simply wallow in this parade of lactating psycho women, feral man-beasts, secret swastika scars, whoring Buddhist priests, dual-sex Siamese twins, surgical abominations, silver-painted futuro-nightclub dance routines, live crab eating, gangster masquerade, circus freaks and cinema’s first exploitation of Butoh (starring the creepy avant-garde dance form’s founder, Tatsumi Hijikata).
Ishii is clearly Takashi Miike’s spiritual granddad, with, amid scores of gangster and prison films, a filmography saturated with crazed mashups: ghosts, torture, giants, superheroes, aliens, you name it. Probably his most notorious film, “Malformed Men” is a ridiculous, ambitious mess, and thus a paradigm for a certain type of movie pleasure-high the unassuming discovery of a forgotten genre ditty bursting with its eccentric maker’s unique perversity.
“The Castle” (Kino) and “Horrors of Malformed Men” (Synapse) are now available on DVD.