Zoetrope: Kafka short story inspires a film about how science, industry, bureaucracy and politics oppress a victim

Charlie Deaux, “Zoetrope” (1999)

Based on my favourite Franz Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony”, this is a stunning-looking short piece about a man’s last hours in prison. The title refers to a toy that first appears out of smoke and which could actually be the spaceship in which the plot proceeds; after the first few minutes in which we are introduced to the unnamed protagonist (Michael Bradley), we catch glimpses of the zoetrope’s monstrous outlines popping in and out of the rest of the short. Our man is held in a prison for reasons unknown; we learn he has suffered incarceration for a long time, is clearly deranged as a result and continues to suffer humiliation and torture from his jailers of whom the main one (Nigel Bonfield) taunts him with portentous mumbo-jumbo philosophy. The chief jailer counts down slowly to the prisoner’s final punishment: the question is whether the prisoner will willingly submit to his torturers or try to escape once and for all.

The acting ranges from minimal to slightly campy as Bradley either paces his cell madly and desperately or freezes in periodic cataleptic trances and as Bonfield prowls his stage around a tattooing machine, all the while purring his threats. The film’s technical chops are its highlight: filmed in sharp B&W film-stock, it has a definite steampunk style with images of a watch’s internal operations regularly flashing up on screen. Live action and animation are blended together to give a strong sense of the victim’s desperation and fear. Editing ranges from slow to super-fast and in-between these extremes; after the halfway point, the editing becomes frenetic and lovely if minimal images flash up and down repeatedly while your mind struggles to register their presence. Hundreds of clear objects zip past your eyes until your orbs hurt but unfortunately blinking is no option, else you’ll miss a lot of very beautiful and poetic imagery.

The film’s look is crisp and the art direction and cinematography are done well. Although the victim is naked, his nudity is shown tastefully with judicious use of contrasting light and shadow. The haunting and sparse atmospheric industrial-style music, created by Brian Williams of the British one-man dark ambient band Lustmord, suits the film’s oppressive style and theme perfectly.

It’s clear that science, politics, red tape and industry have combined to destroy Bradley’s man with no pangs of conscience; that’s ultimately its horrible premise. Bradley is left with no chance of escape from a ground-level Hell. Once the shocking climax has spent itself, Bonfield turns his attention onto another prospective death-row victim. Perhaps this is the real horror of “Zoetrope”: the prisoner’s dilemma turns out to be one of many such tortures Bonfield’s jailer visits on various similar victims as he chooses. What kind of monstrous society could have given birth to such an institution in which prisoners on death row for no good reason are selected at random to be tortured and driven relentlessly to madness and existential pain before dying?

As for the “In the Penal Colony” inspiration, it’s used very sparingly though chillingly. I must admit to not feeling altogether happy about the way it was used; I did feel “Zoetrope”, good as it is, could have been even better if it had drawn on more of the themes of the original short story and its perverted black humour. I am surprised not many film-makers have taken up this short story as an inspiration for a film. As of this time of writing I had heard that a young Iranian director Narges Kalhor, the daughter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political advisor, had made a film based on the story and I am keen to see it if and when it becomes available.

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