The Castle (1997)

Directed by Michael Haneke

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The Castle is a bureaucratic, alienating nightmare based on an unfinished Franz Kafka novel.  In it a man named K. arrives to a wintery, barren village with the promise that he is to be made the Land Surveyor.  When he arrives no one knows of such arrangements and he is instead given the opportunity to take up being the janitor.

K. tries to figure out who has the authority in these parts and how he can sort things out. What he finds out or how he changes, I don’t really remember.  All I know is that he is given two twin assistants whom he decides to refer to as one person, Artur, and he soon stumbles into a planned marriage with a woman named Frieda.

But all the details feel rather unimportant.  What matters is the feelings evoked by the purposeful mystery surrounding K.’s arrival in town and the way people deal with him and he with them.

He is a bit stubborn and certainly confounded.  When he arrives in town we are very much in his corner, as alienated by these people as he is.  Even the camerawork and color palette help encourage these disconnected feelings, everything being claustrophobic and chilled to the bone.  As with other Haneke films this one is even edited with its own almost distressing rhythm, each scene separated by a simple cut to black.

But soon K. dissolves into this environment and in doing so alienates himself from us.  Suddenly he is involved in these entangling webs, even before he understands what they are or how they might work.

He forms alliances and rivalries and begins to participate in the petty squabbles of the town.  In short he disappears, and it’s hard to know when that happens.

So the entire film, one that is quite frankly a bit hard to get through, is a weird little nightmare.  The tasks are so simple but so unreachable, and everything reveals itself to be stuck in idle, even as people run this way and that.

It’s purgatory, plain and simple, and the most distressing part of this bureaucratic nightmare is that K. loses himself in it, as it seems we might too.  When it’s over it’s a relief, with a Sopranos-style ending that reminds us this Kafka novel was unfinished.

So there is no resolution, but of course that is the purpose of all this, at least as Haneke must’ve seen it from Kafka’s work.  The fact that it remains unfinished is in line with the purgatorial themes of the story as a whole.  It will never be finished, and in some ways you expect the story to just circle back on itself, with K. reaching some perceived conclusion that brings him back into the town for the first time all over again, stuck with the same vague memory that he’s been here before or maybe has just never left.

To get a little heady with it, there’s something alluring about such a story insofar as no matter where we go, there we are.  Even as life changes and our literal circumstances change, we still carry with ourselves our own brain and ways of thinking about the world.  You can travel across the world and get the same caffeine-withdrawal headaches or have new impulses only stimulate the same repetitive thoughts in your head, the same narrative you’ve come to accept about yourself, the world and your place in it.

So I think that’s what this film gets at, or at least that’s what I take away from it.  And the comical degree of miscommunication, especially with something so simple, could speak to the same idea, that we all have our own ideas of things and how they should work, and what happens when they simply don’t align?

So it’s a bunch of people stumbling around with some combination of stubborn conviction and hopelessness.

Up Next: Frankie (2019), The King (2019), The Guard (2011)

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