Sometimes a film just doesn’t grab me at all and then I’m sat looking at a blank document thinking, “I don’t know if I can be bothered to write anything about this”. It is extra frustrating when I can see the film’s qualities, but feel so neutral towards it that I struggle to muster any enthusiasm.
One such film is Juráček & Schmidt’s Joseph Kilian, a paranoid short drama from the Czechoslovak New Wave. Knowing that the review is going to be a battle, I face a dilemma. Do I –
a) Give up on the movie and watch something else, then maybe come back another time when a change of mood or circumstances might make it chime differently.
b) Plough ahead regardless and eke out 700-800 words on it, going through the motions and stating the obvious, like the clear influence of Franz Kafka and blah blah blah.
c) Find a hook, a way to approach the film that will entertain me and, in turn, hopefully make the article more entertaining for the reader. My first instinct with Joseph Kilian is to go with option C, but what is the hook?
Well, the comparisons with Kafka immediately stand out, and the author’s name is so often evoked that it has become a cliche to do so. People toss around the term “Kafkaesque” to describe almost anything a little bit dark and weird these days. It’s like when people use the term “Catch-22” without fully grasping what that means, and you can be bloody sure they haven’t read the book. Could I say that the term has become so over-used that I’ve decided to write the whole review without mentioning the writer’s name or the adjective derived from it? It’s a bit weak, I think, but it’s all I’ve got right now. So let’s give it a whirl:
At first glance, Juráček & Schmidt’s mischievous short film invites comparisons with a certain famous Prague writer, right down to the initials of the title character. Yet, while there is an obvious debt of gratitude to the totemic novelist whose intense face can be found on a thousand Prague gift shop mugs, the film feels more like a confluence of influences, from Escher to Samuel Beckett.
Our protagonist is Jan Herold (Karel Vašíček), a man wandering the streets of Prague looking for comrade Kilian. He is met with confused looks whenever he asks people if they have seen him, as no-one seems to have heard of the guy. As he continues his search he stumbles upon a Cat Rental shop (yes, you read that right) and decides that he may as well rent a cat.
He carries on looking for the mysterious Kilian, carrying the cat in a bag. When the time comes to return the cat, the shop is no longer there. What’s more, the building looks like it has been unoccupied for many years, and passersby can’t recall ever seeing a cat rental place in the vicinity. So, with the cat now potentially incurring late fees, Herold continues his search for the eponymous character…
Herold’s meanders through a strange somnambulistic atmosphere, a little like Herk Harvey’s eerie Carnival of Souls. While the premise of a cat rental shop is absurd, this idea lulls you into a false sense of security. The smile it raises is smothered by the disquieting ambience of the half-empty Prague streets, populated by people caught in a trancelike state who don’t really remember anything or recognise anyone.
The directors use bold editing techniques to emphasise the sense of dislocation and unease. They use jarring match-cuts to show Herold in one place then suddenly appearing in another, sometimes chopping our protagonist through several scenes in a matter of seconds. They also tinker with aggressive cuts that made me think my copy was faulty before I realised it was intentional, and also a bit of forward-and-reverse motion tomfoolery with little effect.
These editing choices creates a disorienting environment where people and places vanish and citizens are trapped in strange Escher-like time loops. A dusty passageway is filled with placards bearing Communist slogans that hint at the fate that has befallen the city. It is a place where people have become unmoored from time and space.
Both directors would make feature-length films, with Juráček contributing a key title of the New Wave, Case for A Rookie Hangman. Joseph Kilian was their debut effort, and it shows. It is beautifully shot and features some striking imagery but its sense of strangeness and foreboding quickly evaporates once it is over. It is like a movie put together by two precocious magpies with clear filmmaking talent, but haven’t developed their ideas enough to make them stick. It’s all surface flash without much to underpin it, making the film feel as fleeting and transient as the protagonist.
At this point, I realise that the idea of not mentioning Kafka by name is a bit of a non-starter. I only really needed to refer to him in the first paragraph, and straight away I was relieved – there are only so many ways of not referring to someone by name. If I had to carry on, I could see myself dipping into the Wikipedia article on the novelist and pulling out facts to use in place of his name – the prolific writer whose works were posthumously saved by his good friend Max Brod; Prague’s second-most legendary Jewish resident after Rabbi Loew; and so on.
Then I figure out why the idea was totally off in the first place. To acknowledge the greatest influence on Joseph Kilian without mentioning his name is really quite Kafkaesque.