Much of the visual lexicon we associate with the term ‘Kafkaesque’ was established by Orson Welles’ adaptation of The Trial (1962) and Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt’s Postava k podpírání (Joseph Kilián, 1963), two films of investigation that centre on the investigating self, place the hapless individual against the malevolent state, lead to ‘climaxes’ of extinction or bathos and feature main characters called “Joseph K”. This lexicon includes canted camera angles, signalling individual and collective disorientation, and crude contrasts between light and dark; the visual isolation of the hapless antihero in labyrinths, whether in unnaturally empty streets or dilapidated interiors, where narrow alleyways or corridors lead nowhere; depiction of the architecture of state bureaucracy as a vast knowledge centre walled in by endless filing cabinets, manned by impassive minor officials, entrance to which is by way of cavernous, purgatorial waiting rooms where fellow complainants seethe with mistrust; and the blocking of conversations between the protagonist and state officials as interrogations, in which non sequiturs are loaded with menace.

This is a visual style inspired by expressionism in the graphic arts and the cinema – one grimily hilarious sequence in Joseph Kilián, set in a gigantic records office with clerks floating like malevolent agents on platforms, expands on a similar scene in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) – that was dominant when Franz Kafka was writing and influenced early book covers and illustrations of his work. Welles and the directorial team of Juráček and Schmidt are not to be blamed if later filmmakers and artists have used their innovations as lazy shorthand for the ‘Kafkaesque’. Peter Hames has frequently pointed out that, in the early 1960s, Kafka had only recently been rehabilitated in Czechoslovakia – having for years been marginalised for his non-socialist morbidity – so Juráček and Schmidt were pioneers in imagining Kafka visually for their compatriots.1

In any case, Joseph Kilián is not as ‘Kafkaesque’ as it first appears – or, rather, it is not as visually and thematically monolithic as that neologism had come to mean in the West by 1963.2 This is very much a Czech Kafka adaptation, alert to the comic, folkloric, fantastic, Jewish and mystical dimensions of the writer. As a screenwriter, Juráček worked in social realism (Strop [Ceiling, Věra Chytilová, 1962]), science fiction (Ikarie XB 1 [Jindřich Polák, 1963]), animation (Bláznova kronika [The Jester’s Tale, Karel Zeman, 1964]), neo-Dadaist satire (Sedmikrásky [Daisies, Chytilová, 1966]), post-apocalyptic allegory (Konec srpna v hotelu Ozon [Late August at the Hotel Ozone, Schmidt, 1967]) and spectacular black comedy (Kinoautomat [Radúz Činčera, Ján Roháč & Vladimír Svitáček, 1967]), and elements from all these and other modes find their way into Joseph Kilián.

Take animation, for instance, and Czech animation in particular, which subjects its characters to the whims of an unseen animator, and often elides differences between objects, animals, minerals, flora and humans. The central narrative of Joseph Kilián, in which the unnamed protagonist (Karel Vašíček) hires a cat from a rental shop that disappears when he tries to return it, is charming and funny, but it also dramatises an ontological collapse between a reasoning and obedient human and an irrational and disobedient animal – a trope of horror, and closer to Kafka’s Metamorphosis (wherein a bourgeois wakes up as an insect) and the dissident surrealism of someone like Georges Bataille than the engagé rationalism of the existentialists. Far from creating a blueprint for Kafkaesque cliché, Joseph Kilián anticipated those who would treat Kafka’s themes and situations in novel ways, whether through science fiction (Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville [1965]), cinema-vérité (Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Urząd [The Office, 1966]) or slapstick (Stephen Dwoskin’s Outside In [1981]).

Juráček, who wrote the initial script for Chytilová’s iconic and iconoclastic Daisies, is often written out of that film’s history, but Joseph Kilián proves that he was already thinking about the visual and narrative fracturing of film. Its gloomy ‘Kafkaesque’ style is frequently broken by formal play. Its great advantage over Welles’ The Trial is the setting in Kafka’s hometown, in a documentary style that frequently parodies Candid Camera. The Ben Day dots of the opening titles refer to the brightness of contemporary Pop Art rather than the darkness of expressionism. The camera often freezes into photographic single frames in the manner of François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962). A wonderful scene uses reverse motion to show the protagonist flinging and grabbing his cat in a loop.

The famous opening sequence is a journey through both space and time, as the protagonist walks away from eerily spotlit, criss-crossing street parades of schoolchildren, funeral mourners and the military, and makes his way down a basement full of posters, flags, placards and banners with their outmoded messages and images, the detritus of recent Cold War history and Stalinism. The Arabic newspaper in the climactic sequence is often read as part of the lack of ‘understanding’ that is the main theme of the film; but it is also an exotic spectacle in dismal Prague, a portal even, a reminder of Kafka’s beloved 1001 Nights with their tales of fantasy and metamorphoses of reality wrung out of a storyteller under the threat of death. The focus on a problematic cat and a journey marked by unsatisfactory catechistic encounters invokes Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and implicitly charges the Czech public sphere with violent irrationality. Like the rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Joseph Kilián functions on a structural absence: the recently discredited Stalinism that had not been replaced with anything positive, embodied by Kilián himself, signified by a telephone with a wrong number in an empty office. The Czech authorities tried to suppress Joseph Kilián on its release, and would do so after the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. You can see why; like the best science fiction, it questions received reality. If reality is constructed by unseen apparatchiks according to mutable ideologies, then how can the individual affirm with any certainty who or even where she or he is?

• • •

Postava k podpírání (Joseph Kilián, 1963 Czechoslovakia 38 mins)

Prod. Co: Film Studio Barrandov Prod: Miloš Bergl Dir: Pavel Juráček, Jan Schmidt Scr: Pavel Juráček Phot: Jan Čuřík Ed: Zdeněk Stehlík Art Dir: Oldřich Bosák Mus: Wiliam Bukový Prod. Des: Miroslav Dvořák

Cast: Karel Vašíček, Consuela Morávková, Ivan Růžička, Pavel Bártl, Pavel Šilhánek


  1. It should be borne in mind that its creators denied the importance of Kafka to Joseph Kilián, which was not named in Czech for its aporetic dignitary. The original title, Postava k podpírání, has been translated as ‘A character in need of support’, perhaps alluding to Luigi Pirandello’s famous, proto-Absurd play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). It may or may not be relevant that a real life Joseph Kilian was a kapo, torturer and executioner at Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Kafka’s three sisters infamously died in the Holocaust.
  2. Hames’ linking of the film with both French existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd – Joseph Kilián is a dominating character who never appears and may not even exist, recalling the title character of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – is also typical of the Western reception of Kafka’s work during this period.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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