PRINT September 1984


Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted. Such an impression is captured superlatively in the description of the nature theatre of Oklahoma in Kafka’s Amerika.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

When relating an event someone sometimes says: “Words cannot describe it.” . . . The Straubs have filmed a text by Kafka and they say clearly: "Film cannot describe it.”
Harun Farocki

POPULATED BY SLY VAGABONDS and implacable cops, immigrant proles and enigmatic plutocrats, Franz Kafka’s Amerika is a land of arbitrary good fortune and sudden exploitation, at once a theater of comic cruelty—with vast cities, country estates, and imposing hotels serving as backdrops for grotesque reversals or slapstick chases—and a dream of redemption. While writing the novel Kafka thought he was producing an imitation of Charles Dickens; subsequent commentators (German as well as American) have been virtually unanimous in comparing the book to the nearly contemporaneous comedies of Charlie Chaplin.

Amerika is Kafka’s most extroverted novel; it’s almost picaresque. If, as Adorno has observed, many scenes in the Kafka oeuvre read as though written to describe “expressionist paintings which should have been painted but never were,” Amerika is the adventure that Lyonel Feininger’s pop-expressionist comic strip, The Kin-der-Kids, should have recounted but never did. Indeed, the first two paragraphs of Kafka’s novel could serve as a caption for the epic, madly angular, and bustling view of New York harbor that Feininger emblazoned across the front page of the May 6, 1906, edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune comic supplement—except that Feininger’s Statue of Liberty is waving a handkerchief and Kafka’s, like the angel assigned to police the Garden of Eden, holds aloft a sword.

Since America was a land Kafka knew only from books, the place he describes is as imaginary as Karl May’s New World or the land so numbingly detailed in the Impressions of Africa Raymond Roussel published at his own expense in 1910. Still, it was an escape hatch he must often have pondered. Even as a child, Kafka planned a novel about two warring brothers, “one [of whom] went to America, while the other”—the good one, naturally—”remained behind in a European prison," the writer’s own European prison (a castle, perhaps).

Begun in early 1912 and rewritten later that year (Kafka’s imagination fueled by his epistolary wooing of Felice Bauer), with the first chapter published in May 1913 as “The Stoker” and the remainder of the novel then revised through 1914 before finally being abandoned in 1916 (a year before Chaplin made The Immigrant), Amerika is Kafka’s fantasy of himself alone and free in the New World as a 16-year-old innocent named Karl Rossman. The author read the opening chapters to his friends with unbridled delight, laughing at this splendid joke. “Kafka is in ecstasy, writes whole nights through. A novel set in America,” Max Brod—Kafka’s friend, biographer, and executor—noted in his diary entry of September 29, 1912. It was Brod who gave Kafka’s unfinished work its title; the author had planned to call it Der Verschollene, which can be translated as “The man who disappeared,“ or ”was forgotten, lost without a trace, presumed dead, never heard from again." Adapting the novel for the screen, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet take the same liberty as did Brod. They call their 1984 version of Kafka’s novel Class Relations.

Virtually every Straub/Huillet film is an adaptation of a preexisting text. That these texts have ranged from musical scores by J.S. Bach (for Straub/Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967) to Bertolt Brecht’s novel-fragment The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar (History Lessons, 1972), Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard (Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice, 1977), a letter sent from Friedrich Engels to Karl Kautsky (Too Early, Too Late, 1981), a children’s book by Marguerite Duras (En Rachachant, 1982), and even graffiti found in a German post office (The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp, 1968) suggests that every representational film is a re-presentation, that all subject matter is borrowed, that each film is to be studied for its lapses and infidelities, that nothing can ever be translated. Straub and Huillet’s subject, at least in part, is precisely the disjunction between the original text and its cinematic adaptation. Far from offering a substitute for the original, their films document that disjunction, document the attempt to make a movie out of a text. Typically they are drawn to texts that have been marginalized or, like Amerika, abandoned before completion and which thus resist adaptation all the more.

Shot in ascetic black and white, Class Relations aspires to a studied neutrality. The sets have the ahistorical character of finished basements or doctors’ waiting rooms. The few exteriors are mainly (but hardly explicitly) German. The costumes are of neither 1912 nor 1984 but some blandly unobtrusive mixture of the two. The mainly static camera positions and dry, emptied-out mise-en-scène make Robert Bresson seem as prodigal as Vincente Minnelli. Class Relations isn’t even ostentatiously minimal.

The film’s disorienting lack of establishing shots and characteristic eschewal of conventional reverse-angle editing is at once a political decision to refuse the viewer an invisible position within the narrative construct (and thus, presumably, an unproblematic identification with the characters and action) and a means to emphasize each particular camera setup, this reinforced by Straub and Huillet’s practice of holding locations for as much as half a minute after the actors have left the frame. The frame itself is enormously emphasized by the way the filmmakers use it to isolate the performers from each other, so that most of the dialogue is addressed to characters outside the compositional field. Voices emanate from elsewhere, beyond the frame, and several key activities—a political rally, Karl’s beating at the hands of the perfidious Robinson and Delamarche—are heard but not seen.

The hallmark of Class Relations is the impassive reaction shot. Dialogue tends towards soliloquy, the narrative flow congeals into a textual presence, Kafka’s language becomes an object. A succession of characters, mainly immigrants, recite a litany of jobs lost and found in which fate is only slightly less malevolent than those capricious bosses with which Amerika abounds. The cast mixes professionals with amateurs, and the performances of all are perversely theatrical. Characters stand and declaim their lines in singsong recitations. “The cast is not being asked to act out a text,” as André Bazin wrote of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), "nor even to live it out, just to speak it. . . . ”

Diary of a Country Priest is the great precursor of Straub/Huillet’s method, and Bazin’s comments on it (in “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson," 1951) are readily transposed to Class Relations:

The novel is a cold, hard fact, a reality to be accepted as it stands. One must not attempt to adapt it to the situation in hand, or manipulate it to fit some passing need for an explanation; on the contrary it is something to be taken absolutely as it stands. Bresson never condenses the text, he cuts it. Thus what is left over is a part of the original. Like marble from a quarry the words of the film continue to be a part of the novel. Of course the deliberate emphasis on their literary character can be interpreted as a search after artistic stylization, which is the very opposite of realism. The fact is, however, that in this case the reality is not the descriptive content, moral or intellectual, of the text—it is the very text itself. . . . At first sight the film seems to be somehow made up on the one hand of the abbreviated text of the novel and illustrated, on the other hand, by images that never pretend to replace it.

As Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) makes strange the most familiar of Hollywood cartoons by pedantically transposing it to “live action,” or as Manoel de Oliviera’s Doomed Love (1981) defamiliarizes the 19th-century novel through the fanatically faithful transposition of its narrative conventions into film, so Class Relations reinvents the by now clichéd Kafka—or rather re-presents the frightening irrationality of his world in all its deadpan splendor. Eschewing the baroque bombast of Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962)—Kafka is Art—or the lush naturalism of Rudolf Noelte’s The Castle (1968, with Maximilian Schell as “K”)—Kafka is Real—Class Relations is the most matter-of-fact, the most literal, the least encumbered cinematization of Kafka that one can imagine.

“We simply wanted to show kinds of behavior linked to belonging to a certain class,” say Straub and Huillet; when the rich Senator Jacob tells his long-lost nephew Karl, a greenhorn just off the boat and already agitating for justice, not to “push things too far” but rather to “understand your position,” the filmmakers immediately cut to a severe low-angle shot of the monstrous commercial towers of “New York.”

Structurally, Kafka’s Amerika is a triptych. The first panel is “The Stoker,” the opening chapter and the only portion of the manuscript that Kafka cared to publish. The middle panel is the body of the work, during which, as Berlin filmmaker/film theorist (and Class Relations’ Delamarche) Harun Farocki puts it, Karl “struggles for a place in life as others struggle for a place in eternity” until the narrative breaks off with the 16-year-old immigrant boy being held captive by the monstrous Brunelda and his two nemeses, Delamarche and Robinson, in a brothellike apartment whose balcony affords them a disconnected spectacle not unlike TV’s. The third panel is the discontinuous final chapter which Brod titled “The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” (despite the fact that Kafka refers only to a “Theatre of Oklahoma”).

Admirably abrupt, this epilogue begins with Karl free (again) and unemployed:

At a street corner [he] saw a placard with the following announcement: The Oklahoma Theatre will engage members for its company today at Clayton race-course from six o’clock in the morning until midnight. The great Theatre of Oklahoma calls you! Today only and never again! If you miss your chance now you miss it forever! If you think of your future you are one of us! Everyone is welcome! If you want to be an artist, join our company! Our Theatre can find employment for everyone, a place for everyone! If you decide on an engagement we congratulate you here and now! But hurry, so that you get in before midnight! At twelve o’clock the doors will be shut and never opened again. Down with all those who do not believe in us! Up, and to Clayton!

According to Max Brod, it was Kafka’s plan that within this fabulous theater (whose imagery the writer seems to have derived by superimposing the dilapidated splendor of the Yiddish theater he frequented upon that of the naturopathic sanatoriums he favored) Karl should “find again a profession, freedom and standing, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial magic.” It is as if at this point, the narrative makes a convulsive return to Europe and, with the heightened poignancy that Karl’s experience of Amerika provides, re-presents his most innocent dream of the New World. For the Nature Theatre is the America of Amerika, the immigrant’s fantasy of a place where all are allowed and one need only be one’s own self to find a new identity and begin again.

This surely accounts for the fascination that this sequence of the novel has exerted. According to Walter Benjamin (who never found his way out of the Castle and consequently became an intellectual cult figure second only to Kafka), writing in his essay “Franz Kafka” (1934), “the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma . . . harks back to the Chinese theater, which is a gestic theatre. One of the most significant functions of this theatre is to dissolve happenings into their gestic components”—as, incidentally, Straub and Huillet do for Amerika. (”One can go even further,“ Benjamin continues, ”and say that a good number of Kafka’s shorter studies and stories are seen in their full light only when they are, so to speak, put on as acts in the ‘Nature Theatre of Oklahoma.’“) With its pasteboard angels tottering on huge pedestals and blaring away on trumpets for a handful of spectators, the Nature Theatre is less a theater than a state of being. In a 1972 essay (”Set Out for Clayton!“) comparing the Nature Theatre to the postart art world, Harold Rosenberg calls it the ”situation beyond all cultures—a situation that offers a role to everyone, regardless of talent or training."

The Nature Theatre is that utopian democracy where, as Rosenberg puts it, “everyone not only can be an artist but is a work of art,” where everyone is not only a work of art but “automatically in ‘the right place.’” Seen thus, the Nature Theatre begins to suggest such other esthetic democracies as the early films of Andy Warhol, the wretched refuse of Kurt Schwitters’ Cathedral of Erotic Misery, 1920–36, or the similar (but mutable) “center of unused objects and unwanted objects” proposed by Jack Smith in 1978 as a substitute for palaces of official culture. The Nature Theatre is nothing less than the millennium itself, the end of human history and even class struggle. “The metaphysical problem of identity, whose solution Marx deferred until the advent of the classless society,” Rosenberg wrote, is here “dealt with directly by individuals, each acting in accordance with his inner form.” Yet this is not precisely true, for in order to join the Nature Theatre Karl must surrender his name. “He felt shy of mentioning his own name and letting it be written down. As soon as he had a place here, no matter how small, and filled it satisfactorily, they could have his name, but not now; he had concealed it too long to give it away now. So as no other name occurred to him at the moment, he gave the nickname he had had in his last post: ‘Negro.’”

Negro! Without undue emphasis, Straub/Huillet turn this mysterious bit of business (and the comic repartee that follows it) into the Nature Theatre’s main event. Their treatment of Amerika’s climax is as homogenous as their dramatization of “The Stoker” or any of Karl’s subsequent adventures. Karl studies the Oklahoma Theatre poster on a graffiti-covered building (of all possible underlying slogans, Straub/Huillet have selected the bold graffito: streik); then, suddenly, a delayed passage of Bach bursts from the soundtrack like an intimation of paradise. Radical surgeons, Straub and Huillet delete the race course, the angels, and Karl’s bureaucratic runaround, proceeding directly to Karl’s interview—presented in a low-angle shot of him being interrogated (in English!) by two men in an auditorium.

”Negro?“ said the chief, turning his head and making a grimace, as if Karl had now touched the high water mark of incredibility. Even the clerk looked critically at Karl for a while, but then he said: ”Negro“ and wrote the name down. ”But surely you haven’t written down Negro?“ the chief shouted at him. ”Yes, ‘Negro,’" said the clerk calmly, and waved his hand, as if his superior should now continue the proceedings.

For Straub and Huillet, ultimately there is no escape, no millennium, no America. There are only, as they insist, class relations. Compare their dour Karl to the giddy time-traveler played by Robert DeNiro who dreams his own lethal Nature Theatre of Oklahoma in Sergio Leone’s current Once Upon a Time in America. For Leone, America is an opium fantasy where scum can live like aristocracy, if they have the nerve to kill for the privilege. Or compare Class Relations to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), another ascetic immigrant adventure (albeit one which “rewrites” Wim Wenders as Kafka rewrote Charles Dickens) where the transcendent shabbiness of the Nature Theatre—contentless Walker Evans or Robert Frank—is all that exists. In the Jarmusch film as much as the Leone, money can still be found in the street and the spell of America is precisely its difference from Europe. But these, Straub and Huillet would say, are films about class relations as well and, as for other-ness, America is that foreign country where we all live.

Class Relations bears like a blemish its difference from Amerika. The endings though, are the same. Karl (or “Negro,” not yet “K.”), having been accepted by the Nature Theatre, rides on the train toward Oklahoma: “For two days and two nights they journeyed on. Only now did Karl understand how huge America was. Unweariedly he gazed out of the window. . . . ” Class Relations’ final image, perhaps the lengthiest shot in the film, is of an unspoiled landscape as seen from the window of a moving train.

“Film cannot describe it,” this text by Kafka. The archetypal Straub/Huillet landscape is the now-bucolic site of some past political conflict—a massacre, a revolt, a strike. But there is no suggestion of a history lesson here. Dotted with trees, reflected in a lake, this landscape is empty yet imminent, still pure possibility, a slate without a trace. Unique in their oeuvre (as Amerika was unique in Kafka’s), this vista is a text that’s yet to be written.

J. Hoberman writes him criticism for Artforum and the Village Voice and is writing a book proposing an antiesthetics of movies.