Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar, Felix Eitner, Frank Giering
Running Time: 123 minutes
Language: German with English subtitles
Extras: Trailers, Documentary 24 REALITIES PER SECOND (2005)
Synopsis: A man arrives at a distant snowbound village to take up his new post as land surveyor. However in an absurd turn of events, not only is there no post for him, but the mysterious “Castle” is putting obstacles in his way, and K.’s life soon descends into a spiral of futility and helplessness.
Austrian director Michael Haneke’s THE CASTLE (1997) isn’t for everyone. A made-for-TV movie based on Frank Kafka’s novel of the same name, it’s a piece of film-making from his early career, before he went on to international success with THE PIANO TEACHER (2001), TIME OF THE WOLF (2003) and his most recent work AMOUR (2012). Now THE CASTLE is finally being released in the UK.
We follow the protagonist known as K., a middle-aged man who’s arrived at a small village in the middle of nowhere. He’s there to start his new position as a land surveyor, but a multitude of problems are put in his way, not least the villagers’ assertion that he’s not allowed in and that he can’t speak to “anyone official” about it. Confused? Well, you just have to embrace the confusion. This is a kind of cinema of the absurd, where K. struggles against a nonsensical system he just doesn’t understand (and neither will you). Chief obstacle is the mysterious Castle and its representative Klamm; every time K. comes up against a problem the Castle is responsible, yet we never get to see a turret or a drawbridge, let along actually enter this edifice. Instead it hovers around the edge of the narrative as a permanent symbolic presence.
Another problem facing K. seems to be paperwork. And there are reams of it here, all serving to mystify and confuse. In one scene while K. speaks to the Superintendent about his job (or lack of it) piles and piles of papers slide from a cupboard, covering the carpet in a veritable sea of stationery (the memo’s in here somewhere, apparently). It’s as bad a bureaucratic nightmare as BRAZIL (1985) and I’m sure that anyone who’s had to deal with the faceless pedantry of a system that won’t give you clear answers or let you cut corners will sympathise (tax returns anyone?).
Now you might think a film that’s essentially about a man who travels a long way for a job but no one’s really sure why he’s been asked there, or who hired him, doesn’t sound hugely interesting. But there’s a wicked, droll sense of humour throughout this feature, not simply in the slightly surreal and ridiculous nature of the whole situation. A lot of comedy comes from the two buffoonish assistants assigned to K. (Eitner and Giering) – they stumble and jump around, popping up where K. least expects it (they even appear in the bed K. shares with his newly-found local fiancée). The cinematography is also highly memorable; Haneke is a master of the precise. He uses numerous medium shots that show his characters as part of the landscape they inhabit, trapped in the minutiae of the mundane. It’s also dialogue heavy with extended shots and Haneke’s signature jump-cut to a black screen between scenes. Ulrich Mühe is first-rate in THE CASTLE; I’m reminded of his low-key but emotive performance in THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2007) – his death in 2007 was a real loss to the film community. Haneke fans will enjoy seeing Mühe and Lothar (they were also married in real life) acting together again; perhaps their most memorable performance was as the husband and wife tortured in Haneke’s disturbing FUNNY GAMES (1997). One thing is certain about THE CASTLE – this doesn’t look like a stereotypical TV movie in any way.
THE CASTLE is an oddly compelling film, at times bizarre, disturbing, humdrum and darkly funny. It’s deliciously absurdist, voicing existential questions and quandaries through K. and his futile actions and pursuits. But don’t expect much in the line of conventional plot or ending (Kafka’s novel was unfinished and the film stays close to the book) and don’t expect there to be any actual answers. For Haneke purists only.
Extras: Apart from the obligatory trailers, Haneke aficionados will love the one hour documentary from 2005, 24 REALITIES PER SECOND. Filmed over two and a half years, documentary-makers Nina Kusturica and Eva Testor followed Haneke from scouting for locations to public film screenings and photo-shoots to film-shoots. It’s a fascinating look into this auteur’s ethos and work.