In 1919, Kafka (Irons) is a mild-mannered bureaucrat living in Prague. One day, his friend Eduard Raban dies in an apparent suicide. But was it really suicide? Don't be silly, of course it was murder. Trying to find out the truth and navigate the chaotic world he inhabits, Kafka gets involved with a resistance group that believes Raban was executed by the state and warns Kafka that he may be next.
This film provides examples of:
- Biography à Clef: The movie shows the eponymous author as an Everyman navigating an absurd system with many characters and tropes drawn from his short stories and novels presented as biographical experiences.
- Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: The resistance is regarded as such by Doctor Murnau. Indeed, Kafka himself initially regards them as such, before he learns that the conspiracy is real. Admittedly, the fact that the resistance specializes in suitcase bombs doesn't do much to debunk the stereotype.
- Conspiracy Theorist: Kafka's opinion of the anarchists, at first.Kafka: ''You sit around, twisting the facts to suit your inbred theories. In my experience, the truth is not...that convenient."
- Deliberately Monochrome: All the scenes in the old city are shot in black and white. When Kafka enters the castle through a secret passage in the climax, the scenes shift to color and back to black and white again when he leaves.
- Diesel Punk: Doctor Murnau's inventions have this aesthetic.
- Evil Gloating: Naturally, Doctor Murnau spends a lot of time chatting about his Evil Plan.
- Evil Tower of Ominousness: The Castle. Nobody goes to the Castle unless summoned, and no one leaves.
- Giggling Villain: The Laughing Man is an especially nightmarish example, being a disfigured man who does nothing but giggle as he butchers men with his bare hands in the night.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Doctor Murnau's gory death occurs off-screen, with us just seeing the blood trickle down.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Doctor Murnau is gruesomely killed by his own device.
- Individuality Is Illegal: Doctor Murnau's goal is to eliminate individuality."A crowd is easier to control than an individual. A crowd has a common purpose. The purpose of the individual is always in question."
- La Résistance: The resistance group that Kafka gets involved with.
- Mad Scientist: Doctor Murnau, of course.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Justified in this case, although Kafka being a writer has little bearing on the storyline. Well, other than the fact that it's based on Kafka's works, of course.
- "Not So Different" Remark: Doctor Murnau is an admirer of Kafka, seeing him as a symbol of 20th century progress that they both embody. Kafka rejects this, regarding Murnau's torturous experiments to understand the human mind as making him nothing more than a butcher.Kafka: I've... tried to write nightmares, and you've... built one.
Murnau: You have your tools, I have mine.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Naturally. The most obvious examples are Burgel (who really does turn out to be just a bureaucrat, with no connection to the conspiracy) and the more ominous Chief Clerk.
- Those Two Guys: Kafka's buffoonish assistants Oskar and Ludwig. They're actually Murnau's assistants, but the bumbling seems to be genuine.
- Torture Technician: Ian Holm plays Doctor Murnau, a frail functionary in a dystopian bureaucracy. He's ultimately hoisted by his own petard when one of his subjects breaks loose of his restraints.
- Vast Bureaucracy: The movie invokes this, based on the various bureaucracies in Kafka's own writing.