The Kafkaesque in World Cinema

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Languages, Cultures and Societies


This project will be the first major investigation of the Kafkaesque in World Cinema. The commonsensical definition of Kafkaesque cinema simply reduces the term to films which are "direct adaptations or films inspired by Kafka" (Biderman, Lewit 2016: 16); other scholars suggest that the term refers to films whose aesthetic ambiguity creates interpretative puzzles and "mind games" (Elsaesser 2009: 31). So far, literature scholars have mainly focused on film adaptations of the author's works, while film/media scholarship tends to equate the term with an apolitical aesthetics of mood.
Against this critical tendency, this project intends to establish an original critical methodology through the concept of the Kafkaesque examining how modernist filmmakers from different nations draw on the Kafkaesque tradition of aesthetic ambivalence to respond to the historical contradictions of modernity and late modernity. Departing from the dominant tendency to examine Kafkaesque cinema as an aesthetic of mood voided of any political content, this project examines the transnational aspect of the Kafkaesque aesthetic with the view to revealing its interconnection with historically specific experiences and persistent political contradictions. Analyses of case studies from Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Chile, China, Cuba, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, USA, and the former USSR will deliver a crucial re-evaluation of the Kafkaesque as a critical category in film studies and will illuminate its political implications.
The project has three key research questions:
1. What is Kafkaesque cinema and how can we understand it beyond the screen adaptation of Kafka's texts?
2. Why does the Kafkaesque aesthetic cross geographical boundaries and why is it manifest in different cultures across the globe?
3. What is the correlation between politics and aesthetics in Kafkaesque cinema (questions related to the dialectics between development and underdevelopment, fascism, Stalinism, and key contradictions of modernity and late modernity)?

The project seeks to further our understanding of Kafkaesque cinema and reveal how it can be understood as a response to historical anxieties that modernity and our contemporary late modernity never managed to resolve. This is an especially timely issue given the recent transnational turn in modernist studies and the study of modernism as a global phenomenon that responds to conditions of combined and uneven development.

My fellowship is divided into two phases. Taking an approach informed by writings on Kafka by key critical theorists/philosophers, such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Alexander Kluge, Siegfried Kracauer, and Gilles Deleuze, in phase one, I offer theoretical conceptualisations of the Kafkaesque. During this phase of the project, my focus will be on the completion of two research articles, the organisation of two public engagement activities (one with Leeds Opera North, and one with Leeds International Film Festival) and the presentation of my research in Cambridge, where I will be a visiting scholar for 2 months. In phase two, I aim to delimit the case studies to be discussed and answer the question how Kafkaesque cinema responds to key contradictions of modernity. This phase of the project will result in another research article and a book proposal; I will also take up a visiting fellowship (1 month) at the University of Bergen and will organise a series of screenings and talks at the BFI.

The fellowship will enable me to develop my leadership in the field of World Cinema and commence work in a new area of research. The interdisciplinary quality of the project and the scheduled leadership and impact activities will raise my profile beyond the discipline of film studies and will enable me to shape research agendas and foster wider research impact.

Planned Impact

Given that Kafka is one of the most widely read-authors in the world, the project's emphasis on the Kafkaesque will resonate with people outside academia.
The project's impact derives through three community-engagement activities in collaboration with 1) Leeds Opera North, 2) Leeds International Film festival and 3) British Film Institute (see pathways section).
The first two activities take place during phase one of the project and the last one during the second phase. Furthermore, it is expected that dissemination of short jargon-free articles through public media outlets will maximise the project's impact.
Several non-academic institutions and groups are expected to benefit from the project's activities:

1) Leeds Opera North will benefit from the one-day screening and the post-screening roundtable discussion with the Booker prize winner author and scriptwriter László Krasznahorkai, and Professor András Bálint Kovács (Eötvös Loránd University), who will be invited by the PI. Krasznahorkai and Kovács will lead a discussion on the Kafkaesque in Central European cinema and literature with the PI and the audience.
2) The Leeds International Film Festival will benefit from the special screenings (to be curated by the PI) and discussions dedicated to the Kafkaesque in cinemas outside Europe. The presence of academics and their participation in round-table discussions will also benefit the festival. Furthermore, film and festival programmers and DVD distributors, who attend the festival, will benefit from the planned event, which has the potential to lead to further collaborations between academics and the industry.
3) The British Film Institute will benefit from the screenings, accompanying talks and introductions to Kafkaesque cinema to be organised by the PI, who will curate a series of films from Central and Eastern Europe. The BFI will also benefit from the presence of academics who will participate in the talks/introductions. Members of the Goethe Institute, the Hungarian Cultural Centre, and the Czech Centre London will be invited to this event and will benefit from the opportunity to liaise with scholars whose expertise they can draw on. They will be able to work towards further future collaborations with the invited academics.
4) Members of the public who will attend the project events and read the disseminated essays in the public media outlets will benefit from a better understanding of Kafka's legacy in World Cinema and the connection between the Kafkaesque cinematic aesthetic and historical tensions in modernity and late modernity. Members of the Leeds Social justice network, who campaign to involve communities in cultural events in accessible formats, will be invited to the first two public-facing activities and will be encouraged to actively participate in the discussions around the topic of totalitarianism and Kafkaesque cinema. They will benefit from the special programmes in Leeds Opera North and Leeds International Film Festival and will have the opportunity to build networks for further collaboration with the PI and the other academics involved in the public discussions.


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