Things that are just have a particular look, and your cause, I must admit, does not.
— Dialogue from Class Relations
In Franz Kafka’s Amerika, the plot mechanics that propel the protagonist (Karl Roßmann) through the senseless and inscrutable world in which he finds himself embedded are, as in all of Kafka, withheld from both his and our view. He is only ever confronted by the outcomes of these unseen drivers, never privy to their impetus. In one scene, Roßmann, working as a junior porter in a hotel, is fired because he didn’t think to salute the head porter “one hundred times a day.” Like all Kafka protagonists, he watches blankly as the terms of his failure are enumerated and codified by his self-confessed betters, and as his fate is sealed by unthinking referral to protocols he had no part in crafting. The representatives of this machinery—the bit players who populate the story—offer little clarity amid this wash of conflicting and unexplained sensations, only the circular reasoning of the lurching, improbable, anti-individualist behemoth to which they act as dutiful foot-soldiers.
Even Orson Welles struggled with Kafka. Where Welles’ kinetic, expansive style inevitably emphasized the dissonant surreality of Kafka’s universe—stone-faced slander breathlessly piling upon stone-faced slander, with a hero sedately helpless in the face of it—Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s beautifully opaque style works wonders in despectacularizing the rollercoaster-like sensation of hurtling through a Kafkaian world. By pugnaciously renaming Kafka’s unfinished first novel in the course of adaptation and in translating it to the cinema with such studious fidelity to the text, the Straubs make the case for his work as a satire of hierarchy and its depredations: this is a world where class is used openly as a weapon to be wielded by the powerful. These encounters are the whole movie, in scene after scene, image after image, gesture after gesture. For Roßmann, meeting an unexpected and prominent familial relation leads to immediate gain and prosperity—which, as with everything else, he reacts to with little visible emotion—but also engenders contempt and antagonism towards those of a lower social station.
Straub-Huillet’s Kafka is not merely the anti-authoritarian surrealist Kafka of popular culture, the writer who anticipated the indefatigable bureaucratic nightmare of the short century that would follow his death and built a form on it. While there is something of the spectacular in Class Relations, it is in large part simply suggested, and the most memorable and affecting passages—like Roßmann’s tender and affecting window-side conversation with a woman terrified of losing her sanity—are quieter and flatter than Kafka’s reputation for depicting suspicion and blind panic might suggest. In Class Relations, though the gears of power grind out of sight, the relations between victim and victimizer are clear as daylight. This, above everything, is their Kafka.