Jan Němec’s original proposal in 1966 to adapt Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a theatrical feature was rejected by the Czech state film board. In 1974, he was forced into exile — first seeking refuge in Germany:
CER: What impact did emigration from Czechoslovakia have on you personally and professionally?
JN: I have never emigrated. I was an exile. There is a very big difference. An emigrant is somebody who decides to leave the country, while an exile is chased away, like J A Komenský. In 1974, they wanted to put me in prison, but they gave me a choice, as with Milan Kundera. We were told that the criminal prosecution would be canceled if we applied for a legal departure motivated not by political protest but by a working contract.
I took this offer and left the country legally, so I had a Czech passport for another two years. But it was not like traveling. I couldn’t come back. If I had, they would have seized my passport and began the criminal prosecution all over again, and I would be in prison. After two years they stripped me of my citizenship. So I have never emigrated and I have never applied for political asylum. I was “stateless,” with no citizenship or no legal papers.
Once viewed as perhaps the premiere film-maker of the Czech New Wave, Němec found it extremely difficult in exile both to realize film projects and to find critical sympathy for those he managed to complete. Apparently eager to take advantage of his new found creative freedom, Die Verwandlung was one of the first projects that he completed after fleeing Czechoslovakia. Produced for a dramatic theater series on German television, Němec’s approach to Kafka was perceived by the German audience and critics as a vulgar assault on one of the classic statements of German modernism. Eventually relocating to the United States, Němec fared little better. He would ultimately become associated with small repertory houses in U.S. metropolises like Facets Multimedia in Chicago before returning to Prague upon the election of Václav Havel, his distant cousin, to the presidency after the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 which led to the rapid collapse of state communism.
CER: How did you continue your professional film career in Western Europe and then America?
JN: In Germany, I made a film from my screenplay from the 1960s. It was an adaptation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and I also made about three other films. There was no problem with the work. I just do not fit in in Germany, even though my surname is Němec [which means German in Czech]. Their sense of order, discipline and the need to organize did not suit me. When I filmed the Kafka story, which was made as a slapstick, a German critic wrote that it was incomprehensible how a Czechoslovak film director could make fun of classics from German literature.
I don’t know why Prague’s Jewish author writing in his own German, and not in the spoken German language, should be their classic. But I was not successful. It was said that this is not the way to adapt Kafka. So I received some “black marks.” I had the possibility of good work and a good existence there. They also told me to apply for political asylum, but I did not want to, and especially not in Germany. So I left for America where I had no friends, no contract, no money, nothing and nobody to care for me, and they just let me stay there. I fell for California by the ocean, and I spent there years there walking and thinking.
My films were relatively successful in America, but in New York, not in Los Angeles. There was nobody who had ever heard of me. I wrote lots of screenplays and themes, but without influential friends, I didn’t have a chance.
Němec approaches Kafka’s vision as one that is especially suited to the moving picture rather than stage performance. The television film is accordingly marked by a beguiling mixture of acting styles and visual narrative strategies.
CER: And was there any influence of Beckett or Pinter? Did you read their plays? Were they published in Czechoslovakia during that time?
JN: Yes. They were known. Usually, they were published in the magazine Světová literatura, where Josef Škvorecký was editor-in-chief. I read all of Kafka’s work and I wanted to film his story “Metamorphosis.” But I couldn’t do it here [Czechoslovakia], so I finally made it in Germany. But I don’t feel literally influenced by any of these writers. Pinter and Beckett were “theater” for me.
Perhaps Kafka was closest to me, due to his poetic character. But I think that whoever lives in Prague and walks through the old narrow cobblestone streets has to feel Kafka’s influence. So the influence is not directly from the literary work, but from the spiritual feeling. These are very mysterious things.
Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis is captured, as it is in Kafka, solely through indirect language and narrative perspectivalism. So faithful is Němec to the novella that he follows Kafka in offsetting the singular perspective of Gregor with both “objective” and multiple “subjective” complements. The ultimate difficulty of differentiating these fragmented perspectives from or reconciling them with one another contributes a lot to the Metamorphosis’s unsettling affects upon its readers. As television, the visual experience of Gregor’s metamorphosis is disconcertingly funny. At times, it reminds me of the moments in Orson Welles’s adaptation of Kafka’s Trial where he used anamorphosis to capture that novel’s elusive tonalities. The point-of-view cinematography and close up imagery achieved by Thomas Mauch (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, The Big Mess, etc.) has many stunning moments including a montage of food and dishware in disarray to capture one of Gregor’s disastrous plunges from the Samsa apartment’s overhead light fixtures which is reminiscent of Vera Chytilová at her best.
Subtitles::- closely follows Kafka’s novella,English