This article was written on 15 Apr 2015, and is filled under Books, Film & TV, Media.

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Aleksei Balabanov, “The Castle” (1994): MacKay/Sussman Double-Feature

The Castle (Zamok, 1994)


  • Nikolai Stotsky – K., the surveyor
  • Svetlana Pismichenko – Frieda (dubbed by Anzhelika Nevolina)
  • Viktor Sukhorukov – Surveyor’s assistant
  • Anvar Libabov – Surveyor’s assistant
  • Igor Shibanov – Brunswick
  • Andrei Smirnov – Teacher
  • Vladislav Demchenko – Barnabas
  • Olga Antonova – Innkeeper
  • Viktor Smirnov – Erlanger
  • Aleksei German, Sr. – Klamm
  • Bolot Bejshenaliev – Village chairman
  • Konstantin Demidov – Schwarzer
  • Vladimir Kuznetsov – Hans
  • Svetlana Sviroko – Olga
  • Svetlana Serval’ – Amalia
  • Iuliia Sobolevskaia – Milena
  • Irina Sokolova – Mizzi
  • Iurii Eller – Gerstecker

Production crew, etc.

  • Aleksei Balabanov– director, screenwriter (based on the unfinished novel by Franz Kafka)
  • Sergei Sel’ianov – producer, screenwriters
  • Sergei Iurizditskij, Andrej Zhegalov – cinematographers
  • Vladimir Kartashov – sets
  • Nadezhda Vasil’eva – costumes
  • Sergei Kuryokhin – music
  • Production of Lenfil’m’s Studio, Bioskop Film, CNC, Orient Express, Roskomkino
  • Winner of two Nikas for set design and costumes

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Balabanov’s Castle: De-Sovietizing Kafka – John MacKay

“We were born to make Kafka a reality” («Мы рождены, чтоб Кафку сделать былью»): this phrase was evidently flying around in the late Soviet period, when Kafka’s writings finally became widely accessible (including two different translations of The Castle that appeared in 1988, at least one of which had been completed over a decade earlier). Among the various long-problematic modernist writers – Joyce, Proust, Beckett and others – Kafka had perhaps been the most controversial in the USSR, in part because no one could quite figure out what his books were criticizing (if anything), and how far the critique extended (if critique it was).

Across much of the lifespan of the USSR, Kafka was denounced for his pessimism, his “denial of social progress,” his dead-end absurdism and universalization of “the filth and vileness of bourgeois relationships,” and his supposed belief in “the inscrutability of the world, the omnipotence of evil, and man’s insuperable loneliness.” He had not been, however, an unknown quantity; and “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony” and other short works had been published in January 1964 in the journal Foreign Literature, surprisingly enough in the wake of a months-long anti-modernism campaign in the press. This publication was the high point of a slow shift in opinion that began ca. 1959, and apparently came about above all because of greater contact with Western intellectuals on the one hand, and (on the other) the willingness of other East Bloc countries to publish and (perhaps more importantly) publicly discuss Kafka and other modernists starting after 1956.

A May 1963 conference in Liblice, Czechoslovakia in honor of what would have been Kafka’s 80th birthday celebrated the writer as “a great realist … poet of alienation, and victim of the cult of [Stalin’s] personality.” Soviet cultural officials were aware that Kafka had been translated and published successfully in a number of East Bloc countries after 1956, and that he was already widely read by the early 1960s by intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; some East German critics, such as Hans Mayer (who later defected), were calling for a reevaluation as well.

As regards the West, heated debates about Kafka marked the famous International Writers’ Conference in Leningrad in August 1963, attended by such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Roger Caillois, Angus Wilson, William Golding and Hans-Magnus Enzensberger. Sartre and Robbe-Grillet in particular placed subtle pressure on the Soviets to reconsider Kafka, with the latter noting that Soviet anti-modernist criticism sounded no different to him than reactionary criticism in France.

At home, 1959 saw the beginning of critical efforts – which mainly ceased after 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring – by a number of Soviet pundits to save Kafka for the “realist” USSR. The strategies included singling out Kafka’s attacks on “the Austrian governmental military machine” (in “Penal Colony”), the “bourgeois institutions of bourgeois government” (in The Trial), and the “destructive power of money” (in “The Bucket-Rider”); noting his “premonitions of fascism” (Ilya Ehrenburg); or stressing his sympathy for the downtrodden in works like “The Metamorphosis,” and his muted valorization of resistance to authority in (say) The Trial. The power that weighs upon K. in The Castle, wrote one critic, is “a completely real power…which is hostile to man and crushes and enslaves him.”

To be sure, most critical discussion of Kafka took care to affirm that the alienation and bureaucratic madness represented in his works referred only to capitalist societies. But fascinatingly, it seems that two other historical factors, with the potential to open up painful wounds, also worked to enable Kafka’s belated appearance in Russia in the 1960s. In 1964, a critic named Velikovskii actually linked Kafka to the de-Stalinization campaign, noting that the Stalinist cult of personality demonstrated that alienation (from the truth, from sound judgment, from reality) clearly did exist in the Soviet Union. Kafka’s writings, he argued, are “an instrument, if not for the elimination, then undoubtedly for the detection and disclosure of the cancers of alienation.” Later, the split with China (and especially after the advent of the Cultural Revolution) opened the possibility for more open discussion of bureaucracy and authoritarianism, sometimes by sociologists with an interest in Kafka, who took the novelist onboard as one of the first to see how “in the world of alienation, under arbitrary totalitarian rule, the ordinary man is filled with fear for his fate and is terrorized by the pervasive atmosphere of repression . . . [which can lead to] the corruption of consciousness, the destruction of the human ‘I’, the transformation of an individual into a depersonalized insect.”

What is perhaps most striking, however, about Balabanov’s adaptation (at least in this viewer’s eyes) is the way that the film seems to avoid any allusions whatsoever to the Soviet past or Soviet totalitarianism, whether on the level of language, sound or iconography. (That Balabanov could very well conjure up that iconography would become evident in 2007, with Cargo 200.) The film seems instead to subject Kafka’s text to a very personal and rather carnivalesque authorial revisioning, where we attend to the circulation of objects and motifs – coats, other pieces of clothing, windows, walls, all manner of weird gadgets, the media instruments of some bygone or imagined bygone age – as much as to any “existential” themes. The Kafka “reality” created by Balabanov is very far from a Soviet one, and includes some remarkable swerves from Kafka as well (note the ending, for instance). Perhaps this is the strongest indicator of the way the filmmaker seizes Kafka for a post-Soviet world: through an assertion of autonomy vis-à-vis not only the earlier Soviet reception or non-reception of Kafka, or any supposedly “Kafkaesque” elements of Soviet life, but also in regard to Kafka himself.

  • 1 March 2015


To Kafka from Russia with Love: Balabanov’s “Castle” Adaptation–Henry Sussman

With two major adaptations of Kafka’s most philosophical, least finished novel-project, the 1990’s saw an unpredictable run into the virtual space of the Kafkan Imaginary. A somber made-for-TV version in B & W by Michael Haneke (1997) strove for (and achieved) high fidelity to Kafka’s meandering and speculative novel. The director, in anticipation of his tour de force in The White Ribbon, pressed his uncanny sense for the temperamental climate prevailing in isolated and dank villages into the service of this adaptation. K.’s remorseless wanderings from one end of the Castle village to the other in a double-barreled quest for sense and affirmation are shot in absolutely level horizontal verité. This does not begin to exhaust what is levelheaded about Haneke’s adaptation. K. is a bit jaded and at the end of his tether, as we would expect a drifter in the middle of life’s road to be. There is a great performance by Frieda (Susanne Lothar), K.’s primary love-interest and his only living link, a sexual one, to administrator absconditus, Klamm. The film offers everything in the way of slapstick idiocy on the part of messenger Barnabas and assistants Artur and Jeremias that Kafka fans everywhere rightly demand. An impressive tribute to Kafka’s most enigmatic extended work, the Haneke adaptation performs public service as well: at a consistently high level of artistic specs, it presents the novel, accurately and plausibly–to the broader public.

Three years earlier, and in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, Aleksei Balabanov, implanted every bit as firmly as Haneke in the Castle’s virtual domain, had mounted a distinctively different adaptation strategy—looser in fidelity, wilder in improvisation, and more open in its splicing in of tangential motifs. Balabanov remains bolder in setting Kafka’s Castle in the Russian counterparts to its “natural” and architectural settings. Indeed, Haneke curtails the “outside” to deliberations on K’s part that are first and foremost bureaucratic and domestic. What we see mostly of the outside in Haneke’s version is characters bracing themselves against onslaughts of snow. The most extended outdoors scene is in the courtyard of the Herrenhof Hotel: K. waits there in futility, hoping to snag Klamm as he hops into his sled. Haneke does not even venture an image of the Castle from afar, although Kafka’s nuanced description of this pile is one of the great narrative triumphs in his ouevre.

Balabanov’s framing of the Castle in its natural environment is striking indeed. His shots of the surrounding countryside are exquisite. The Russian Castle village echoes Kremlin architecture, and in this sense references the Eisenstein classics, whether “Ivan the Terrible” or “Alexander Nevsky.” At transitional moments in the film, Balabanov foregrounds the Castle in long shots of volatile water whose current is no more liquid than it is solid. In their indeterminate turmoil, the menacing swells echo K.’s predicament.

The first chapter of Das Schloβ specifies that in age, K. has reached the plateau of “thirty-something.” In contrast to Haneke’s K., the masterful Ulrich Mühe, Nikolai Stotsky, Balabanov’s protagonist, is as youthful an actor as could possibly be imagined for this role. Under Balabanov’s direction, K., and the novel he dominates, work in the interest of an implied youth movement, perhaps the generation being called upon to galvanize and redirect Russia in its post-Soviet phase. The expectation of Balabanov’s K. from the get-go—that he is, authoritatively, to employ and direct Barnabas and the assistants in their tasks–takes on a theater of the absurd cast.

Perhaps the most substantial difference in the approaches to adaptation taken by Haneke and Balabanov is that the latter’s “The Castle” filters back to us through the active mediation of Walter Benjamin—and not only the Benjamin of the groundbreaking 1934 retrospective on Franz Kafka. The most remarkable torque that Balabanov applies to Kafka’s plot may well be that the master-craftsmen with whom K. interacts, Barnabas’s aging and discredited father and his former assistant, Brunswick, are no longer master cobblers but manufacturers of music cylinders (as in player pianos and similar devices). This single plot-twist opens the film to a wild and proliferating showcase of outmoded mechanical technologies of reproduction—in the visual as well as audio sphere. In its artistic design and décor, the film becomes a Benjaminian phantasmagoria (and “Antique Road Show”) of way stations on the road to advanced tele-technic verisimilitude. If endless waiting and hovering indecision form the “steady state” of K.’s existential predicament, this open-ended deferral becomes an occasion for meditating on the crisis of mediation, its endless quest for “purer” and more advanced forms, for “higher fidelity” realism. It is in this way that Balabanov’s Castle adaptation becomes a carnivalesque and parodic quest for the ultimate modality of “technological reproducibility.” It is a master-stroke as well that Balabanov names K.’s love interest who replaces Frieda amid the steady fast-forward that the novel prescribes for all human interactions (this in opposition to bureaucratic procedures) “Milena” instead of “Pepi.” This act of renaming enables Balabanov, improbably, to loop Franz Kafka’s life-story into his adaptation. In Kafka’s later years, a liaison largely by correspondence with Milena Jesenska supplanted his tortuous his on-again off-again engagement to Felice Bauer.

In a way that would be much appreciated by Mikhail Bakhtine, Balabanov transforms Kafka’s Schloβ from existential travesty precisely into carnival—without departing from the virtual and aesthetic landscapes established by the Castle and its domains. In this dimension of the iteration, implausibly, Federico Fellini joins the cast of the film’s cinematic forbears. Resolute in his quest, K. is almost never afforded the luxury of being alone with his thoughts. K.’s struggle not only to reach and confront Klamm but with the unavoidable crowds into which he is constantly thrust comprises a central element in the film’s social satire. Periodically, the “madding crowd” that K. has been forced to join forms a chorus–breaking out into song and dance routines whose preeminent quality is their mechanical stutter-step. (An appropriately eerie and marvelously variegated soundtrack by Sergey Kuryokhin accompanies the visuals.)       Along with the film’s showcase of outmoded mechanical technologies, the film’s musical “numbers,” especially when performed by its chorus of children, reference an early nineteenth-century aesthetic, the mechanical possession periodically overwhelming E. T. A. Hoffmann’s major characters. If the trappings surrounding K.’s personal predicament and existential quest derive from an aesthetic of the Romantic grotesque, the costumes designed for the film, perhaps in keeping with its architecture, tend to hover in the late Middle Ages, on the cusp of Modernity. This menacing, strictly black attire recalls an age of social anomie and violence constantly on the verge of reemergence.

Balabanov’s “The Castle” evolves into a romp from one rural medieval outpost à la Russe, from one Kafkan love-impasse, and from one technology of “mechanical reproducibility” to the next. It is, in the world of film adaptations, as loose and fanciful as Haneke’s is faithful and de rigeur. Balabanov’s “The Castle” is not afraid to run away where Kafka contented himself with spare one-liners. As Frieda clears the taproom where she works as barmaid so that she may deepen her intimate ties to K., the narrator compares her to Circe. In Balabanov’s version, a flock of very tangible swine unpredictably romps through cine-space at all the wrong moments. Balabanov unlocks Das Schloβ; he springs the novel’s embedded absurdities, even while maintaining his version of tight fidelity to plot, theme, and mood.

Perhaps the ultimate coup that Balabanov pulls off in his “loose-construction” adaptation of the Kafka classic is inserting, toward the end of K.’s drama in the village, a Faustian pact by which Brunswick, the music cylinder master, assumes the interloper’s identity in exchange for his wife. (She is the unusually dainty “girl from the Castle” that K. spots early on in his village rounds. Balabanov has set K.’s infatuation for her in his film somewhat higher than it plays out in the novel.) Through this added role-reversal, the tangential novelistic character, Brunswick, reaps all the recognition and reward ultimately accruing to K.–though only in Balabanov’s retelling. This definitive “so near but so far” final plot-twist only reinforces the futility of K.’s position. His fate remains very much the one that Kafka had programmed for him: a slacker with much to commend him in his common sense and basic instinct for justice—doomed, however, to being thwarted by the inevitable blind-spots and méconnaissance in his vision.

This film employs color and set-design to great effect. It evokes notable performances, above all by Svetlana Pismichenko (Frieda), Igor Shibanov (Brunswick), Andrei Smirnov (Teacher), Vladislav Demchenko (Barnabas), Bolot Bejshenaliev (Mayor), Vladimir Kuznetsov (Hans Brunswick), Svetlana Sviroko (Olga) and Svetlana Serval’ (Amalia). Kafka himself could only marvel at how far his striking images have travelled; how well his scenarios of systematic insult, bureaucratic deferral, and instinctual thwarting fare in a radically distant socio-cultural “frame”; how much his inaugural fictive forays into media and technology ended up suggesting.

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