The greatest film in the English language, from Franz Kafka, is Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962), which lends tremendous sorrow to the original’s bureaucratic satire, raised to the level of existential mystery, by taking into account an event that occurred historically post-novel: the Holocaust. Another U.S. writer-director, Woody Allen, mined a similar vein of emotionally complex material in his Kafka film, Shadows and Fog (Schatten und Nebel), one of his four or five best, and funniest, works. By an interesting coincidence, that same year Steven Soderbergh made his Kafka film, Kafka.
The main character is Kleinman (Allen, excellent)—perhaps Josef Kleinman. Kleinman, small, nervous, is a bookkeeper who normally keeps to himself. One night, in this film of fog-enshrouded night (the black-and-white cinematographer is Antonioni’s superlative Carlo di Palma), Kleinman is awoken by neighbors. A serial killer is afoot in the village and Kleinman must join their effort to catch him. But then they are gone; Kleinman’s neighbors appear to have disappeared into the fog. Kleinman himself feels incredibly vulnerable, frightened.
Perhaps the film is set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, perhaps in a Jewish village like the one from which Kafka’s father, Hermann, went to Prague: Osek, in southern Bohemia. In this simultaneously terrifying and hilarious film, fog obliterates specificity. One thing is certain: Jews keep disappearing or being killed. What has the circus, which is camped just outside the village, have to do with all this?
One might describe Shadows and Fog as being painfully funny. It is a shimmering piece of dark enchantment that draws inspiration from German expressionistic films (Nosferatu, M) and Ingmar Bergman’s circus film, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953). It is, as far as I know, Allen’s one film (by dint of metaphor) about the Holocaust.
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