Kafka Noir: ‘The Sickroom’ and ‘A Country Doctor’

One morning, when Retro Remote woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin: he realised that he hated short films. Perhaps it was the delayed after-effects of enforced undergraduate film project screenings, perhaps it was the blatant “calling card” mentality of the productions, perhaps it was just the recurring tendency to be “cute” or “clever” rather than, y’know, interesting, or perhaps the converse tendency towards impossible pretension (something Retro Remote is undeniably guilty of). Surely it couldn’t just be the fact that he was becoming bitter vermin (a jaded film critic)?

Actually hating short films is, of course, ridiculous: the idea that running time has any connection to the film’s value is the kind of art-as-train-schedule mindset reserved for marketing and advertising agents (bring back the 62 minute feature, please). More likely it’s the fact that changes in technology and marketing have simply given the form a feeling of irrelevance. Easily distributed, digested, and forgotten, social media video sharing has taken over the short unique narrative and, in doing so, now makes a mere ten minutes seem like a lifetime (get to the point, do I lol or do I “meh”?). Essentially, there’s plenty of opportunities to see people try their hand at short filmmaking, but fewer and fewer opportunities to see quality or complex short films get important mainstream exposure.

Whatever its merits (and there are many), the short film in its traditional sense may be destined to become an oddity rather than a key part of film fandom. As Australian Film, Television and Radio School lecturer Mike Jones suggests, it might be “time for the emerging Filmmaker to get a new calling card”. (No Film School.com, 12 July 2010)

But one of the most important reasons for supporting short films as a viable mainstream artform is the fact that some stories simply benefit from a running length that falls into that enormous grey area between ten and 90 minutes (TV doesn’t really count unless we have a sudden return of anthology series). Adaptations of short stories are obvious examples: there are countless opportunities for adaptations that can only be destroyed by padding them out to feature length. A strong and confronting idea in Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report” became generic bloated nonsense when forced into feature length for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 adaptation, for example (the conflict between the strength of the core idea and the evasive manoeuvring of the padded narrative has perhaps never been clearer than in this film).

One of the best examples of the short film as a form perfect for difficult adaptations is Serge Marcotte’s 1998 The Sickroom, a film-noir style adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story “A Country Doctor”.

The above preview and the complete short film can be viewed at Vithèque, “an artist-run centre devoted to the creation, distribution and dissemination of media art based in Montreal, Canada” (registration to view the complete film is free).

On the surface, The Sickroom is seemingly the least-creative and most perennially frustrating of all adaptation types: a modern genre updating of a literary classic. Retro Remote never wants to see another “passing modern trend”-themed Shakespeare adaptation, and takes frequent solace in the excellent article from The Onion: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended” (2 June 2007).

But Marcotte’s strong understanding of his source shows film noir (of sorts) as a surprisingly appropriate style for adapting Kafka. Far from a “cute” application of disparate styles, Marcotte channels the underlying resonances shared by both styles and produces an adaptation that is simultaneously unique and inherently faithful: the contradictory essence of what a good adaptation should be.

A rough and hard-boiled noir hero (played with a great forceful, tough-guy tone by Richard Orlando) might not seem to represent the typical Kafka protagonist, but the gambit in casting and characterisation is probably Marcotte’s most intriguing and important change. (Marcotte would also go on to direct a similar short adaptation of Kafka’s difficult “The Judgment” in 2001, as well as the seemingly “The Metamophosis”-inspired 2010 short film The Greens).

With their odd mix of hinted symbolism and blunt literalism, universality and idiosyncrasy, the works of Kafka are difficult enough to adapt to film at the best of times without having to worry about the extra problem of character tone and casting. A Kafka protagonist is hardly the solid and active hero that most mainstream narratives rely on, but the tendency to swing back to the other extreme – dwelling on the impotent, embattled, and introverted traits that the characters exhibit – is also an unsatisfactory simplification.

Just as common usage of the term “Kafkaesque” for tangled bureaucratic nightmares doesn’t capture the full extent of Kafka’s world, a frightened and confused ping-pong-ball protagonist misses most of the introspective nuances of Kafka’s characters. All of Kafka’s scenarios seem to force imprecise questions upon us, and these weird reshapings and misshapings aren’t so easily translated to blunt visual imagery or transposed onto some pre-made star image. Given that Kafka’s characters seemed to have so much of the personal in them, adaptations may find themselves in the additional task of simultaneously channelling both the characters and the writer. Piotr Dumala’s excellent 1992 short animation Franz Kafka carefully mixes both the man and hints of his fictional worlds as does Peter Capaldi’s “cute” Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life with Richard E. Grant as Kafka.

Franz Kafka (1992) Piotr Dumala:

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1995) Peter Capaldi:

In his somewhat under-appreciated adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, Orson Welles took some criticism for the casting of Anthony Perkins as the book’s protagonist “Joseph K.”. Welles, however, suggested that the criticisms were based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the character: “I think everyone has an idea of K. as some kind of Woody Allen. That’s who they think K. is. But it’s very clearly stated in the book that he is a young executive on his way up – ‘a bright young man, one of the brightest'” (quoted in Ronald Bergan, Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life, p. 192). Interestingly, Welles also notes one of the key traits he sought in Perkins: “aggressiveness”.

It’s common for the world to confuse introspection with inaction (a la Hamlet), but if Kafka’s protagonists seem to achieve nothing, it’s generally because Kafka offers no hint of an available outcome, as though all the action takes place within Zeno’s paradox of impossible movement; this introspection in the face of endless impossibility and uncertainty is itself the struggle, not an impediment to it. As such, it’s important that we don’t see Kafka’s characters simply as snivelling weaklings or jittery neurotics even when they’re denied all recourse to recognisable action.

So that spark of “aggressiveness” has a place in the Kafkaesque hero, even when it emerges in less precise forms, and it’s that spark that sees one of the most successful Kafka adaptations turn the short story “A Country Doctor” into The Sickroom, a noir-laced nightmare full of hard-boiled dialogue and an unusually effective breakneck pace.

Far from the neurotic Woody Allen types that Welles describes, here the “Country Doctor” of The Sickroom springs into action immediately as the film begins, noticing the rain starting “as if scheduled” just as he puts down the phone receiver that summons him to a patient somewhere out in the night, a straight-to-the-point noir beginning that’s up there with the pre-title sequence of Retro Remote favourite Act of Violence (1948, Fred Zinnemann) for a sudden, forceful and visceral opening.

Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” is the short and strange tale of a doctor summoned to a patient’s bedside on a terrible winter night. His horse dead from the cold of the winter, a man provides him with a carriage, but also makes his unwelcome sexual intentions towards the doctor’s assistant horribly clear as the Doctor is unwittingly swept off into the night. Arriving at his destination, a young boy lies waiting. First he seems to be fine, then clearly, he’s dying. Caught between a desire to return to his young assistant and a compulsion to stay, the doctor can only admit to his patient his own powerlessness in the face of the suggestive red wound opening up in the boy’s side, and finds himself trapped in a nightmare stasis between the two realms he is both drawn to and repulsed from.

The text of Kafka’s short story (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir) can be found here: 101 Bananas.com.

A Mass of Neuroses

The marked difference in Marcotte’s approach and tone from other adaptations of “A Country Doctor” is immediately noticeable. Some of the better radio adaptations of literary works appeared on the series The Black Mass, which began in 1963 (long after radio drama was functionally “dead”), and its version of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” was broadcast on 14 August 1964.

Part of The Black Mass‘ strength in adaptation was its determined reliance on its source text: rather than aim for standard dramatisation, the shows were instead mildly-dramatised readings (a highly underappreciated artform). Such an approach may seem uncreative, but in fact places an additional (and highly desirable) emphasis on the links between interpretation and performance rather than potentially clumsy transposition to an entirely new narrative form.

As Black Mass producers John Whiting and Erik Bauersfeld agreed of their sources, “the text was sacred: no story was to be altered in plot, in substance, or in diction. We were convinced that “too close to the original” was a compliment, not a criticism” (“Black Mass”, My-KPFA). This careful adherence to the text (beyond the simple literalism that passes for “authenticity” in many popular adaptations) produced some highly effective and powerful works of radio drama, but “A Country Doctor” is one of the rare misfires.

In presenting Kafka’s world of enclosure and confinement, the Country Doctor himself emerges almost immediately as an addled, confused, and powerless man, blathering about the world around him and already trapped in its nightmares before they’ve fully emerged to the listener. The effect is by no means a failure, but it reduces the text to something of a monotonous whine rather than the troubled glimpses into a human condition struggling actively with life’s constant progression as an unyielding nightmare. As hinted at above in Welles’s complaint of character expectations, the Country Doctor is a mass of neuroses with no confounding element of authentic humanity peeking through.

The Black Mass‘ “A Country Doctor” and its other excellent adaptations can be downloaded here: KPFA History.info.

A more recent adaptation was produced by the Seeing Ear Theater starring Mark Hamill as the Country Doctor. Hamill’s Doctor is nowhere near as jittery as the Doctor in The Black Mass, but seems entirely lackadaisical throughout the strange nightmare ordeal, seemingly bored rather than devoured by the nightmare world that emerges around him, almost as though the actor and producers were afraid to offer any dramatic interpretation of Kafka’s weird events.

(audio only)

The Country Doctor is perhaps slightly less feeble and and more engaged in the 2007 enjoyable (if that’s the right word) anime adaptation by Kōji Yamamura, Kafuka: Inaka Isha, with a hint of confidence and humour slipping through before he’s sucked into his atemporal nightmare. It’s another strong (faithful) adaptation, although once again its lead is marked with an internal passivity that somehow negates the enforced passivity that Kafka’s story thrusts on the Doctor from the outside. As with the two radio adaptations, the text is recreated faithfully, but almost too faithfully, stifling any real bursts of adaptive insight and instead drawing heavily on well-worn “spooky signifiers” like creepy music, sound effects and low ominous drones.

Combining Kafka and noir in The Sickroom in fact allows Marcotte to maintain the sense of powerlessness and enclosure that Kafka presents without stripping his title character of all traces of active decision. As with all the best noir heroes, just because they think they’re driving, it doesn’t mean that they’re actually in control. Another affinity with noir is the fact that the characters, though vaguely aware of their doom, still might feel that spark to struggle against their fate, even if only briefly and without direction. Welles turning Joseph K. into something of a defiant hero at the end of The Trial may not be true to Kafka’s miserable ending, but it nevertheless taps into the potential for defiance that bubbles away beneath moments in Kafka’s scenarios.

Similarly, noir offers a world where the narrative might be able to find some kind of stable resolution, but only after the hero has been forcibly and miserably expelled from it; it’s not that there isn’t a happy ending to be found, it’s just that he/she won’t be around to see it (the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, for example, or the unnerving ending of “Before the Law”).

Marcotte’s Doctor rationalises as best he can in the face of the sudden fortuitous appearance of the car offered by the leering monochrome punk, forcing his way to decision even as the turns of the story take it out of his control (his young assistant fleeing and the punk leaping out to pursue him). Where other adaptations tend to dwell on establishing Kafka’s setup with heavy emphasis on the opening text and ominous visual or aural triggers, Marcotte races through this early sequence at breakneck pace, making tangible the entrapment faced by the Doctor as he is summoned from out of nowhere to perform his task as a “Doctor”, a title that he wields as a vague storybook title like “knight” (as with the “P.I.” of noir) rather than an actual medical practitioner. Where other adaptations linger on Kafka’s establishment of the scenario, Marcotte skilfully leaves us with the same partial, half-understood glimpses that the Doctor himself experiences.

Once he reaches the “sickroom”, Marcotte also has enough confidence to allow in a moment or two of humour, with the Doctor interrupting his monologue on professional focus with a dopey “huh?” as the young boy leans in to ask for death, followed by a wry observation on avoiding legal entanglements over what “might have been said”. Most “serious” adaptations emphasise the seriousness of their source, but only the best adaptations have the understanding to find an apt joke or two that somehow heighten, rather than diminish, the tough and tense mood.

Marcotte makes some changes to some of Kafka’s key images (the wound is on the leg rather than the side, and is directly stated to be symptomatic of a inner disease) but, as with the earlier changes, this streamlines rather than distorts its source. The smattering of blood over an image of the boy’s inner leg is an effective replacement for the wound, and perhaps hints slightly at the rape of the Doctor’s young (male in this version) assistant that we’re led to believe is taking place while the Doctor is away (Kafka’s text links the two with the “rose-red” wound on the boy, and “Rose” as the name of the young female assistant).

Where the other adaptation see the Doctor as somewhat uncertain and confronted by the boy’s oscillation between wanting to die and lamenting his fate, Orlando’s Doctor lets the tough guy dialogue hint at a past wealth of experience of death and suffering in similar “sickrooms”: “You know what your mistake is, my friend? You don’t have a wide enough view of the world. I’ve been in all of the sickrooms far and wide and let me tell you, you’re very well off comparatively. Done in a tight corner with two strokes of an axe as we used to say in my day”.

When questioned, he assures his patient that it’s “really how it is”: “take the word of honour of an official doctor”. Orlando places an extra emphasis on “doc-toh”, emphasising its strange Jedi-noir status (though the character earlier decries its deification) rather than its purely practical function (such as the dull “public health official” title offered by Hamill’s Doctor in this scene).

Through it all, this Doctor maintains some vestiges of self-awareness and control. Unlike the original and other adaptations, he is not challenged by anyone other than the dying boy (the most overt nightmarish and strange elements of Kafka’s text such as the stripping and singing are left out in Marcotte’s version). Even in this troubled and troubling interaction, the Doctor pushes his way through all objections to declare the boy lucky to not have a worse death (or a longer life?) in store for him.

This “two strokes of an axe” suggestion of the benefits of a quick death seems to be often problematic in its interpretation. According to Hand P. Guth’s “Symbol and Contextual Restraint: Kafka’s “Country Doctor””, the original German refers to the boy’s wound being “done in a wedge-shaped cut”, which is translated as the less clear “tight corner”. Without the presence of an actual wound, the “done” in The Sickroom can only really refer to dying in general rather than the wound itself, essentially leaving us with the interpretation that the boy’s overall suffering will ultimately be lessened thanks to his young and relatively swift death. (Whether this is a valid emphasis or a misinterpretation can be left to Kafka scholars.)

It’s really only after this brusque exchange that the Doctor returns to his car and we have a moment to reflect as the tension dissipates. The powerlessness that he hurled almost defiantly at the dying young boy now seems an insurmountable burden. The Doctor now finds himself trapped in a slow vehicle “barely moving”, and only then truly thinks that of the “disgusting backseat man making a victim out of my assistant”, before collapsing into the necessary atemporal defeat: “I don’t want to think about it anymore”.

It’s through this counter-intuitive frantic noirish hard-boiled defiance that the story’s real sense of enclosure emerges, the frantic energy of the protagonist only a momentary diversion from the miserable and insurmountable fate of Kafka’s confined and controlling world. It’s a bold and energetic adaptation that has a confidence in its interpretation that is rarely captured by other faithful, but overly-cautious, adaptations and portrays a thoroughly convincing synchronicity between Kafka and film noir.