'Kafka' Is One of the Most Delightfully Jewish Shows of the Year – Kveller (2024)

I was not expecting one of the most enlivening experiences of TV this year to be a show about Franz Kafka. And yet watching director David Schalko and scriptwriter and author Daniel Kehlmann’s “Kafka,” a six-episode limited series about the Jewish Bohemian writer who gave us “The Metamorphosis” and “The Trial,” who died a full century ago, left me feeling totally revitalized and alive in a way no TV show has this year.

First of all, there is the fact that this show, now streaming on ChaiFlicks, about a writer, based on a biography by Reiner Stach, is written in a very… writer-ly way. Language, a melding of Kafka’s, Kehlmann’s and Stach’s, sings and sings and sings in this series. It’s a period show, but you can find not a single speck of dust or mildew here — it feels fresh and timely and dynamically crafted. And it’s not just the writing, but the impeccable acting. Joel Basman, a Jewish Swiss actor, plays a delightful, funny, curious and anguished Kafka, and also looks uncannily like the Jewish author. And it’s also the sets, which can feel at once so grounded in the period and then also incredibly inventive, at times feeling like avant-garde theater in the best of ways. The show is purely a treat for those who love well-made TV.

But also, on a more selfish point, I felt enlivened by how deeply Jewish it is. Work about Kafka sometimes likes to skate by, or even completely ignore, the impact that Jewishness — Jewish society, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition and Zionism — all had on the writer’s life and work. But every episode here has its own rich, sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, Jewish moments.

Perhaps the desire to relegate Kafka’s Jewishness to footnotes comes from his own famous line, found in his diaries: “What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t have anything in common with myself!” which is one Kafka exclaims early in the show. Yet this is another part of Kafka that gets misunderstood. Kafka’s relationship with Judaism was like his relationship with his identity, fluid and also integral to who he was. In the show, we see him go on a journey with his relationship to Zionism, saying how he both admires and is disgusted by it; he fantasizes about moving to Tel Aviv with Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he was engaged twice, and with whom he had a relationship full of fantasies.

In an interview with Kveller, Schalko said he was as intentional as he could be when it came to authentic casting for the project, but because the show has so many Jewish roles, and the Jewish pool to draw from was fairly small, he couldn’t cast every Jewish role with a Jewish actor. The role of Yitzhak Lowy, the Polish Yiddish theater actor, was important for him to cast authentically, and he feels fortunate to have found Konstantin Frank, who not only looks quite a bit like the Yiddish theater star, but also embodies his Yiddishkeit so well. His Yiddish, too, was excellent. Basman, on the other hand, had to pretend he doesn’t speak Hebrew. His Israeli father, who spent some time on set, made some comments on a particularly Jewish scene in the finale, in which the actor speaks Hebrew — but had to pretend to do so less fluently.

Schalko wanted to break stereotypes about the iconic writer. “One of the Kafka cliches is [his writing is] sad and black and everything is tragic,” he said. “But when you read Kafka, there’s so much humor, black humor, without [him] getting cynical.”

That’s part of why Basman was cast as the author — he is a great comic actor, and he channels a kind of impish, delightful and also neurotic and melancholic Kafka so well. He’s especially hilarious as he enacts Kafka’s passion for Fletcherism — following Horace Fletcher’s “chew-chew cult” who urged his followers to masticate their food fully in their mouths. Watching him eat a bowl of peanuts is as haunting as any of Kafka’s novels.

The other thing that show understands is the mercurial nature of a biographical work. Kafka was a constant mystery to all those who surrounded him, even to himself, and so instead of offering some kind of chronological document, the showrunners decided to have each episode show the author through a different prism — Kafka the lover, Kafka the bureaucrat, Kafka the son, Kafka the friend — each of them showing a different truth about the author, but none ever really capturing him fully. Even the show’s omniscient narrator is never sure of how to truly tell the story.

The first episode is dedicated to, and largely absolves, Kafka’s best friend and literary cheerleader, Max Brod, who escaped Prague with a suitcase full of the author’s writing a few months before the beginning of World War II, writings that his dying friend had asked him to burn, but that he never did. Brod has been criticized for his choice, as well as for changes that he made to Kafka’s unfinished writings, and yet Schalko feels the criticism against him has been entirely unfair.

“He put Kafka’s work in front of his own work,” Schalko said. “He encouraged him to write even when he hadn’t written one line in his life [yet]. He saw what kind of writer he would be. So I think we owe him a lot, and he deserves to be seen like that. He was a very good friend.” Schalko also maintains that Kafka’s request to burn his work was less out of a desire for that work to be destroyed and more out of care for his own mythology. We see Kafka’s insecurity about his work play out so much in this show, and so the desire to erase evidence of his imperfect writings seems understandable. And yet, what would our world be if we didn’t have the writing that Brod saved, which included Kafka’s letters, journals and his novel “Amerikana”? Our world would be worse for it, for sure.

Another untrue preconception that this show helps alleviate is about Kafka’s work at the insurance office. His writing often touched on how tedious and monotone life in the insurance office where he worked. Yet the episode that explores that reality in the show feels more like an office comedy, and it’s clear that Kafka was admired by his colleagues for his writing prowess as well as his excellent litigation. Schalko called his workplace “paradise,” a place where he got a lot of time off, and where he was just spending his days in a roomful of writers. And his job also saved him from WWI, though not from its horrors — those he got to see in his office every day, and the show does an apt job at also showing the terrible price of war.

Jewish viewers perhaps would be most entranced by the fourth episode of the show, which explores both Kafka’s relationship with his father, Hermann Kafka, played by the terrifying Nicholas Ofczarek, and his admiration for Yiddish theater, and how he found a connection to the art through Yiddish theater star Yizhak Lowy, played by Konstantin Frank. I have never seen a TV show treat Yiddish theater with such reverence and understanding, and the show deserves to be watched only for that, and yet just like every episode of this show, it’s full of universal truisms that are still relevant now.

The episode touches on how this push and pull between old-world Jewry and the newly well-to-do and assimilated Jews. Kafka’s father is horrified by what Lowy represents. And here the show explores so well a Jewish tension that still often occupies us — a desire to be a good Jew, and therefore, distance ourselves from the possibility of persecution — in this case, form Hermann, it’s the desire to be assimilated, successful, grounded in society. In today’s world, that tension comes often in relation to Zionism — in certain spaces, to be a “good” Jew means to be antizionist, in others, an ardent Zionist, and the need is to constantly distance yourself from the unenlightened Jewish “side,” through rage and indignation. Even Lowy, oh-so-genial a person and so connected to Kafka, finds himself chastising his family, asking them what kind of Jews they are.

The show also shows Kafka’s embeddedness in a Jewish intellectual circle — the Prague Circle. Kafka is often surrounded by Brod, musician Oskar Baum, philosopher and prominent Zionist Felix Weltsch (the grandfather of famed Israeli voice actor Eli Gorenstein), and poet and philosopher Franz Werfel. They make for a merry band of artists (who often spend time in brothels together, as was done by many merry bands of artists at the era,) a sounding board of creativity, but also ideas about Judaism and Zionism. Less than two decades after Kafka’s death, they will all be gone from Prague, some made it to the U.S., some to mandatory Palestine. Many lost scores of relatives to concentration camps, including Kafka. Much of his family was murdered during the Holocaust.

Despite having many a lewd brothel scenes, this is not a show about the genius of men. Here, the female characters are not just fully fledged — they’re interesting (Jewish and non-Jewish) characters of their own, intellectual and illuminating, often wiser than their lover. Three episodes are dedicated to the women Kafka loved, or maybe believed he loved most ardently. There’s Felice Bauer, whose episode is full of Judaism and also feel like such wonderful commentary on falling in love with the idea of love and romance more than the actual person you’re meant to be in a relationship. There’s the lovely Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last true love, who came from an Orthodox Jewish background and took care of him on his deathbed. Then in the middle, there’s translator Milena Jesenská, played by “Babylon Berlin” star Liv Lisa Fries who is delightful and enchanting and chutzpadik in it.

Jesenská’s episode is actually the one that explores antisemitism most aptly. Milena, who wasn’t Jewish, married Ernst Polak, and her father was furious at her for having married a Jew, a fact that she shares with the author in their idyllic romp in the woods. The episode, which takes place in Austria, also features a moment in which Milena and Franz experience antisemtic harrasment by a man sitting at a cafe next to them.

“It was important for us that you get a feeling that even in the beginning of the 20s, it started,” Schalko told me, talking about the signs for the rise of Nazism in Austria — “you can feel what will happen like, because the antisemitism was there, and even the Nazis were there because they were illegal party at this time, but they existed, and the people knew about it. So this was the time when the rise of the Nazis began slowly, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism around, and to get a feeling for that, that it’s even open antiSemitism, that the people are talking to you like that. It’s not behind the hand. I think that was very important, because it also was very important for us to tell the intellectual milieu of the of the Jewish intellectual milleux of the 20s that what disappeared because of the Holocaust, all of his friends, actually, but Max Brod were killed in the concentration camps like Welch and Baum and the whole family, and in Europe, really, 50% of the intellectuals disappeared. So it was very important for us to get a feeling for that. Because everybody says, Yeah, Kafka was before the Nazis and everything and but it was [there already] you could feel it.”

Despite all the darkness, this show is a balm and a light — just like the joys and wisdom of Kafka. It’s a very Jewish ode to a man who changed the way we view literature, and perhaps more importantly, the way we view the world and ourselves.

Lior Zaltzman

Lior Zaltzman is the deputy managing editor of Kveller.

'Kafka' Is One of the Most Delightfully Jewish Shows of the Year – Kveller (2024)
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