Kafka Noir: 'The Sickroom' and 'A Country Doctor'

Serge Marcotte's The Sickroom compresses Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor into a nightmarish rush of hard-boiled film noir cynicism that, like all the best literary adaptations, is simultaneously faithful and unique.

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, 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

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