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'Kafka' conjures a thoughtful -- and occasionally bizarre -- portrait of an iconic artist

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The drama series "Kafka" is about the Jewish writer Franz Kafka, who worked in Prague dealing with insurance claims and benefits while composing short stories and novels by night, writings which mostly went unpublished during his lifetime. The six-part series was shown on German TV earlier this year and is now streaming on ChaiFlicks, a platform that showcases movies and TV shows with Jewish or Israeli themes or origin. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Netflix and other streaming services have made movies and TV series from other countries more available to U.S. audiences than ever before. And they're being gobbled up by viewers fascinated by the originality and the compelling oddity of everything from South Korea's "Squid Game" to Germany's "Babylon Berlin."

Now comes another TV series from Germany, a six-part biographical drama called "Kafka." And like those other imported dramas, subtitles and unfamiliar actors don't keep you from being sucked in. I ended up loving "Kafka," and for some of the strangest reasons. I loved the structure of the miniseries, which is loose enough to have characters break the fourth wall and talk to the narrator and bold enough to slip from scenes of Kafka's life to imagined scenes from his stories. I love the show's interiors, which were so full of detail that you felt transported back to turn-of-the-century Prague, kind of like an old-world Wes Anderson approach. I love the exteriors, too. Most of one entire episode takes place during a hike in the gorgeous countryside of Vienna. And most of all, I love the dialogue, which pulls from Kafka's writings to examine his thoughts and feelings and put them into quick exchanges which are both bizarre and funny.

Franz Kafka, as portrayed here, was surrounded by oppression, regimentation, and rejection. Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, and his stern father constantly ridiculed and belittled him. Kafka's career, eventually working as a claims adjuster at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute, was the very definition of drudgery. Yet he found solace in his writing, which he toiled over almost every night of his life. He also, less frequently, found solace with women. He never married, but had a few very significant relationships, including a fellow writer and free thinker, Milena Jesenska, who lived in Vienna and translated his work. Milena is played by Liv Lisa Fries, who also starred in "Babylon Berlin." And Franz Kafka is played by Joel Basman, who plays him as a tightly coiled repressed loner, who speaks softly, but whose words either make you wince or laugh. He's awkward around most women, but around most men, too. He's kind of like Sheldon in "The Big Bang Theory," only as a writer, not a physicist.

In an early meeting between Franz and Milena, while they're walking in the woods. She asks him casually about his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KAFKA")

LIV LISA FRIES: (As Milena Jesenska, speaking German).

JOEL BASMAN: (As Franz Kafka, speaking German).

BIANCULLI: Their conversation translates like this. Kafka says, I wrote him a gigantic letter 2 1/2 years ago. She replies, I also write to my father every week. He insists on it. And Kafka says, no, not that kind of letter. Mine was more than 100 pages. When she asks what his father's response was, Kafka says he didn't read it. One hundred pages, she says incredulously, and he didn't read it? And Kafka replies, no, but mainly because I never gave it to him. It really made me laugh and turns out it was true.

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis at age 40. That was 100 years ago, which gives this centenary production a hook of sorts. But it doesn't need one. It's directed and co-written by David Schalko, who's been called one of the most important Austrian filmmakers of his generation. I can see why. He and co-writer Daniel Kehlmann, who has an international reputation as a novelist, have brought their own imaginations and artistry to the imaginative artist who wrote such stories as "The Castle," "The Trial," and "The Metamorphosis." And it answers the question, what kind of writer would come up with a story about a man who wakes up to find himself turned into a giant cockroach? And even more important, why?

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the drama series "Kafka."

If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview with comic Hannah Einbinder, or the man once known as the nation's doctor, Anthony Fauci, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO'S "CHARLIE M") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 24, 2024 at 2:06 PM EDT
A previous web version of this story incorrectly stated that Kafka is a Netflix series. It is not.
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.