DESPITE THE CRITICAL SUPERLATIVES heaped upon Marek Krajewski’s Death in Breslau, the first of the Polish author’s Inspector Eberhard Mock Investigations series released in the U.S., the novel fails to ignite fully as a thriller.
But Krajewski more than compensates for the flaws of his plot and characterization by reminding us of the seminal role that Franz Kafka played in the development of noir — a genre that transcends the clichés of wisecracking private dicks and desperate grifters clawing out of the West Texas oil fields.
Death in Breslau is a prime example of intertextuality, an intricate pastiche that invests the setting of arbitrary tyranny, perversion, and mind-numbing violence that was Nazi Germany with a thoroughly Kafkaesque manner and mood. Indeed, Breslau owes a greater debt to Orson Welles’s 1962 film noir treatment of Kafka’s The Trial than to the hardboiled style of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
According to no less perceptive a witness of the 20th century than Bertolt Brecht, “Kafka described with wonderful imaginative power the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state Apparat.” Here Brecht gave eloquent expression to the notion of Kafka as a “prophet of fascism” — a notion embraced, perhaps inescapably, by many postwar scholars and critics, but one that runs the risk of reducing the idiosyncratic genius to a kind of one-note Cassandra.
Roger Ebert throws in with the prophet of fascism crowd in his appreciative review of Welles’s adaptation of The Trial, writing that the novel, portraying the harrowing plight of Josef K, a bank CFO arrested and prosecuted for an unspecified crime, “reflected his own paranoia, but it was prophetic, foreseeing Stalin’s gulag and Hitler’s holocaust, in which innocent people wake up one morning to discover they are guilty of being themselves.” The persecution of the innocent goes to the very heart of noir and contributes a major nauseating plot point to Death in Breslau, at which we will arrive momentarily.
But this interpretation of Kafka is a matter of hindsight; we can’t help but see him through the lens of what came after, and, partly, through the lens of Welles’s film. As Marc Svetov writes in the Noir City Sentinel, Welles’s Trial is “a fine adaptation of Kafka to modern circumstances”: “Shooting in Europe on a shoestring, Welles employed an Expressionist lens: the state-built, low-rent high rises are bathed in shadow and run-down anonymity, sinuously twisting in a maelstrom of movement.”
In the interior shots of Welles’s film, Svetov continues, “we often seem to be looking up at the protagonists from the floor. In the scene where Josef K. finds himself among the guilty people waiting in the court hallways, Expressionist cinema is perfectly recaptured. Every one of them has been condemned, although none know why. The lighting, the distorted camera angles, the vulnerability of the people who all are raptly, timidly staring at Anthony Perkins — these eerie depictions of hopelessness reflect Josef K’s inescapable, unnamed doom. The Nazi death camps had occurred in the interim, of course, but it is really pure Kafka, whom we might term a seer. The author, had he lived that long, would probably have been among the Holocaust’...read more