Joel Basman as Franz Kafka in ‘Kafka’

Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez

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Streaming Kafka

On the centennial of the great Jewish, 20th-century storyteller’s death comes a six-part miniseries about his life. Spoiler: It’s not bad!

David Mikics
June 07, 2024
Joel Basman as Franz Kafka in 'Kafka'

Copyright ORF/Superfilm/Nicole Albiez

One hundred years ago this week, Franz Kafka lay on his deathbed, coughing up blood. By his side was his last, most devoted girlfriend, Dora Diamant, with whom he had fantasized about emigrating to Palestine. Now he was too feeble to crawl out of bed. The tearjerker death of the most saintlike modern author closes the new television miniseries Kafka, starring Joel Basman and scripted by German novelist Daniel Kehlmann and the series’ director, David Schalko.

Thankfully, though, Kafka mostly departs from straight-laced pathos. Instead, the series gives us a stirring, wide-ranging portrait of the author in all his roles. Here is Kafka threading his way through the hunched-over, kerchiefed women at the asbestos factory that he managed with his brother-in-law. In late August 1914 he faces a roomful of maimed war veterans sitting outside his office at his Prague accident insurance company. And in the early 1920s he sits with his translator Milena Jesenská at a beer garden in Vienna, the target of a drunken Austrian’s antisemitic tirade.

Kafka was less an artist of dread than a perversely hopeful seeker after happiness. W.H. Auden said that you should only read Kafka when you are in good physical and psychic health. Auden commented, “When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.”

Since it’s impossible to distinguish between Kafka’s life and what he described in his fiction, Kafka melds them together. After witnessing a cornered Kafka at the dinner table, we see the Samsa family’s stout maid pound to dust with her broom the carapace of their dead son Gregor. One morning, you suddenly turn into a bug, but reality continues operating by the usual rules. Literature’s uneasy dream becomes actual life—the uncanny hook that every Kafka reader responds to.

Kafka is impressively cast. Joel Basman is shorter and far less lanky than the real Franz Kafka, and he performs his twice-daily calisthenics clothed in underwear rather than the way Kafka did, naked and in front of the window. But he has Kafka’s sly, reticent smile, his piercing fear and his iron self-assurance. Kafka, a vegetarian, practiced Fletcherizing, chewing every mouthful of food 40 times. When he works his way through his plate of nuts, munching like an otherworldly squirrel, he charms and irritates at once. Hermann Kafka (Nicholas Ofczarek), a big man, always quietly menacing, is exactly how one imagined him. So is the ebullient, racy Milena Jesenská (Liv Lisa Fries), Kafka’s Czech translator, and maybe his truest love.

The series starts slowly, with an opening episode devoted to Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and literary executor. Brod famously defied Kafka’s dying command to burn his manuscripts, giving the world The Trial and The Castle. Brod was fiendishly productive, writing scores of books, and conducting affairs with multiple women at once. Here he is played rather too quietly by David Kross, lacking the manic energy that Kafka must have doted on.

Kafka picks up speed in its second episode, about Franz’s engagement to Felice Bauer. This Felice (Lia von Blarer) is brisk and charming, an upbeat career woman unsuited to angst-ridden Franz. One would never guess that Kafka spent 10 pleasurable days in a hotel with Felice in 1916. In Kafka they do nothing more than lie awkwardly and fully clothed on a bed, with Franz reading one of his stories aloud. The episode’s highlight is Kafka’s meeting with Rilke (Lars Eidinger), who saw Kafka read “In the Penal Colony” in Munich in November 1916. The brief talk between the two deadly accurate, 20th-century authors is brilliantly invented by Kehlmann and Schalko. Rilke quotes his poem “Die Könige der Welt sind alt” (The Kings of the World Are Old), and for a few minutes he duels with the younger Kafka, both of them displaying enigmatic wit and a frightening depth of soul.

The heart of Kafka is its third episode, focusing on Kafka’s friendship with Yiddish actor Yitzhak Löwy, superbly played by Konstantin Frank. Kafka became enraptured by the crude, spirited plays that Löwy’s troupe presented during their visit to Prague. This full-bodied Yiddish, rough and hotly Jewish, was utterly alien to the Prague German spoken by the Kafkas. When Löwy comes to the Kafka family’s dinner table, he speaks only Yiddish. His rip-roaring Tummler shtick, complete with a phony-baloney story about meeting the czar, outrages Kafka’s glowering father.

Kafka here takes a historical liberty, since Löwy would have spoken a stumbling German in the Kafka household, rather than Yiddish. But the language gap drives home the clash between this warm-hearted, clowning Eastern European Jew and the Kafkas, respectable, stiff German speakers. Finally, Hermann Kafka blows his top. “Ungeziefer bringst du mir ins Haus” (“You’re bringing vermin into my house”), he explodes at his son—“Ungeziefer” was Kafka’s word for the insectified Gregor Samsa. When Hermann throws Löwy out, the Yiddish actor tells the Kafka family that they’re not real Jews at all—where, he asks, is their feeling for Jewishness? Do they even know what a Seder is?

The Kafkas attended synagogue three times a year, on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Kaiser Franz Josef’s birthday, and Kafka felt he inherited only a dead Judaism from his father. Kafka made up for this early lack. Near the end of his short life, he learned to speak Hebrew, and he immersed himself in books about Jewish history. But whatever kind of Jew you were, your fate was the same. The end of the episode reminds the audience that Yitzhak Löwy, whom Kafka urged to emigrate to Palestine, was murdered in Treblinka, and his three sisters in Chelmno and Auschwitz.

The series’ fourth episode turns to Kafka’s work in the insurance office, where he displays a harrowing mastery. His employers, aware of his literary successes, call him a “Teufelskerl” (literally “devil of a fellow”—a jack of all trades). In the final two episodes, focused on Kafka’s relationships with Milena and Dora, he is followed by two leather-coated men, who echo the executioners in The Trial and K.’s assistants in The Castle.

In Kafka, the necessity of lying becomes sublime, Hannah Arendt remarked. Bureaucratic minutiae are the stuff of daring single combat. Reiner Stach notes that in The Trial “there is a great deal of haggling over words and nuances, as though the author wanted not to tell us something but to prove it.” Kafka, an expert lawyer, learned that trick from the office.

Death shadows the tubercular Kafka, who experiences his most elated moments with the frisky, challenging Milena. At age 24, when he met her, Milena, a teenage drug user and compulsive shoplifter, had slept with both women and men, and had aborted a pregnancy. She had briefly been committed to an asylum by her antisemitic father, who disapproved of her marriage to Ernst Pollak, a Jewish writer and ne’er-do-well. Fries plays Milena as an irresistible free spirit, impatient with Kafka’s romantic hesitations. Yet she herself hesitated, and in the end chose Pollak over him.

Dora Diamant (Tamara Romera Ginés), who emigrated to Russia and then Palestine after Kafka died, appears both maternal and childlike, a dying man’s perfect help-meet. Kafka lived with her during the last year of his life in Berlin, weak but exhilarated.

The series gets rather too cuddly in this last episode, with Dora doting ceaselessly on the near-immobile Franz. Before Kafka’s final sickness there was more action. Dora recalled that they dreamed of opening a café in Tel Aviv, with her as cook and Franz as waiter, and that Kafka would act out the role of the waiter for 15 minutes, serving a series of imaginary customers. Kafka might have seen Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), and it is tempting to think of him as a buoyant, Chaplin-like character.

Dora was astonished that Kafka after his death was thought to be a hater of life. “A person who ate and drank with such joy as he did, how he took such pleasure in eating a banana!” she said. “Whoever saw Franz drink a sip of wine would become a wine drinker.” Schalko and Kehlmann give us a Kafka with zest, who looks to enjoy life’s pleasures. Though skinny, he was no hunger artist.

Reiner Stach, whose encyclopedic biography of Kafka will likely never be surpassed, was the adviser for the series. Though Stach sometimes pontificates, he knows more than anyone and has a second-to-none feel for Kafka’s milieu. One wonders, though, whether the city’s prostitutes were really as fetchingly healthy-cheeked and Klimt-gorgeous as the ones we see when Kafka, Brod, and their friends visit a wine bar.

Kafka’s sexual experience was mostly with prostitutes, not uncommon for a bachelor in his day. His erotic troubles have sometimes been exaggerated. He recalled in his diary “the sweetness of a relationship with a beloved woman” during two casual affairs. Sex, he said, has “something of the air that was breathed in Paradise before the fall.” Yet he was tormented, too. A fling with a wine bar waitress, Hansi Szokol, made him “very unhappy,” Brod remarked, and four years after she left, he was still thinking about her laugh. The sexually voracious women who populate The Trial and The Castle probably recall his time with Hansi; the barmaid Frieda in The Castle is partly based on Milena.

At one point, Frieda tells K.,

I really do dream that there’s no quiet place on earth for our love, not in the village and not anywhere else, so I picture a grave deep and narrow, in which we embrace as if clamped together, I bury my face against you, you yours against me, and no one will ever see us again.

Eros is strong as the grave, and it might metamorphose you beyond recognition. But those who knew Kafka kept him close, however far he drifted away in time and space. In Schalko and Kehlmann’s Kafka Milena tells Franz, “I’ll never let you go,” and she never did. Like his writing, he was both unmistakable and ineradicable.

Large-scale interpretations of Kafka’s books and stories are always disappointing, but you could compile a worthwhile anthology from the stray remarks made by his readers. One critic, Fred Rush, says, “In Kafka there is nothing so mysterious as facts clearly perceived.” Because interpretation cannot dispel the mystery, Kafka is the hardest major author to write about. “Official decisions are as shy as young girls,” Kafka writes, adding that they may have other things in common with girls, too. Kafka’s books are like those young girls.

The unruffled fluency of Kafka’s style provides a gently comic, saddening contrast to his hard-pressed protagonists. The author is implacable, present at each moment, with none of Joyce’s centrifugal vitality or Proust’s need to orchestrate the past by rearranging it. Kafka’s prose is hard to translate, since relative clauses nestle like Chinese boxes, a phenomenon far more natural to German than English. Kleist’s sinuous, self-aware sentences were his strongest influence.

Walter Benjamin said that religion in Kafka has been reduced to “the rumor about the true things” and the role of folly. Kafka was a champion of modernity’s high-foolish sect—those hopeless bunglers with supreme ambition, the white-collar prisoners of the workplace. Kafka’s petty clerks pursue ridiculous schemes to scale the heavens, and their quixotic jousts display the utmost seriousness.

Schalko and Kehlmann’s series shows Kafka in search of the good life, which eludes him like the promised land, or the castle that K. remains barred from. In the last chapter of Amerika, he describes the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, where everybody is welcome, and “all are happy and excited.” Let’s imagine him there.

Kafka is now streaming on ChaiFlicks.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.