As might be expected from a film about one of the greatest authors of the last century, Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991) is full of visual references to the act of writing. Life, death, and writing perform a waltz on screen, a kind of Danse macabre. Many people don’t like the film – Roger Ebert certainly didn’t. While its merits are debatable, the film is notable at least for its presentation of writers and writing. The nightmarish, sci-fi vision, combining Kafka’s life and literary work in a kind of phantasmagorical magic lantern show of free association, presents the viewer with an interesting analogy: individual as typewriter and consciousness as the production of text. As the dynamic opening sequences in a Czech insurance company suggest, a typewriter that functions is a metonymy for a thinking, working, productive individual – a consciousness, recording. Death, on the other hand, is the cessation of writing. A covered typewriter stands in for a murdered colleague; a life ends, clogging a printing press. If you are written about, or writing, you exist. If your life is missing from the archive (like that of the illusive Dr Murnau, in the world of the film) you do not; and if you write the wrong sentences, like the political dissenters Kafka falls in with, you will surely not exist for long. The shots of paper-filled archives, the endless production of text and documentation, anticipate the world of social media networks, where tweets and status updates confirm our existence as individuals, where Facebook accounts can be tended like grave plots when we pass away, and where we keep our own files and activity logs in a bottomless digital archive. When the writing stops, life ceases to be – just as, at the end of the film, when Kafka finally finishes a letter to his father he has been labouring over for the duration of the movie, he is already suffering from the Tuberculosis that we know will kill him. In a curious inversion of De Certau’s reader-consumer as producer, the world of Soderbergh’s Kafka is full of stenographers, printers, and writers. When the noise of the typewriter stops, the eyes close, the film ends, the world ceases to be.
This is where I blog about representations of writing in visual media.