In this essay, William Leahy animadverts on the parallels between Griffith’s film and Kafka’s stories, and relates them to the themes of Will Self’s essay.
‘Will you save me?’ the boy whispers, dazzled by the life in the wound. That’s the way people are in this parish. Always demanding the impossible from their doctor. They have lost their old faith; the priest sits around at home, ripping up his altar garments one after another; but the doctor is expected to perform miracles with his delicate surgeon’s fingers. Well, whatever …
Although these are the words of Kafka’s protagonist in ‘A Country Doctor’, the sentiments expressed here could well have been spoken by the main character in a 1909 short film made by D.W. Griffith for Biograph, The Country Doctor, starring, among others, a 16-year-old Mary Pickford. While Kafka strikes a weirdly contemporary note – ‘well, what-ev-er’ – the impossible demands on his doctor correspond closely with those of his namesake in Griffith’s one-reeler. One is tempted to suggest that Kafka (who, his diaries show, was a fan of the cinema) may well have seen Griffith’s film and have been reminded of it when he came to write his story ten years later.
The film is about the happy and affluent Dr Harcourt, shown with his wife and daughter in ‘The Peaceful Valley of Stillwater’, an extended opening pan shot displaying the bucolic beauty of this American town. The family are shown as they walk through a field of grass picking flowers together.
In the next scene, little Edith Harcourt is taken ill. The parents are naturally concerned, but because her father is a doctor, there seems little to worry about. But a poor family in the vicinity are then shown inside their more modest home, their own young daughter sick in bed. The mother runs to Dr Harcourt to plead with him to come and care for her sick daughter. He is loath to leave Edith, but after much pleading and crying, he finally does so in order to visit the sick girl. Then Edith takes a turn for the worse and the family maid runs to the doctor to plead with him to return. He hesitates too long: by the time he returns home Edith has died.
In many ways, this is an unremarkable film for its time, with a contrived plotline, overly dramatic acting and a sentimental denouement. Griffith had only been making films for a year at this point, though the unsophisticated nature of the endeavour is not the result of inexperience, but rather of the ‘youth’ of cinematic language at the time. In this sense, it’s the opposite of Kafka’s story, which is so strange, so surreal, so unheimlich, so stylistically self-conscious.
Cinematic language was then an emerging form. Griffith’s cameraman, Gottfried Wilhelm ‘Billy’ Bitzer, is widely believed to be responsible for developing such popular techniques as the filming of entire scenes under artificial lighting (rather than outside), closing a scene through fade-out, soft focus, close up, long shots and various uses of lighting to create mood, and the iris shot (where a circle closes the scene). He was using these techniques around the time of the film. Compare this with Kafka writing in the moment of Modernism, during the re-configuring of a certain mode of representation. In contrast, the film’s story seems superficial; it seems ‘all surface’. But perhaps it is right there, on its surface that something disconcerting, something ‘Kafkaesque’, appears.
The Unheimlichkeit apparent in the film comes from one of the necessities of the form: silent film. For the audience to perceive the actors’ emotions in a form without sound, it was necessary to highlight the eyes by the use of dark makeup. In The Country Doctor the actors sport black circles around their eyes. To accentuate Edith’s sickness, the black makeup is applied liberally, making her look, in the words of an Internet commenter, ‘like she is in the process of turning after being bitten by a zombie’. This is not a good look, it must be said, but it’s effective. The rather chilling note is enhanced further by Edith’s (zombie-like) face being centre screen and turned most of the time to the audience. For perhaps as much as two thirds of the 14-minute film, her eyes – the sick, black-ringed, wounded eyes of a child – are the film’s central focus. To use Kafka’s terms, the eyes are the film’s flower, its wound.
Like Kafka’s story, the film is about a ‘doctor’s dilemma’: the conflict between his duties to those near and those faraway. The dilemma of the doctor in Kafka’s story leads, it is said, to his guilt and unhappiness at abandoning his maid Rosa to her fate. This strikes me as true, though I wonder about the conventional reading of the source of his guilt, the real fate of Rosa. It holds that Rosa is left by the doctor to a rapist, the groom. But perhaps he is not a rapist but a cannibal. There is no suggestion of sexual ravishment in his actions; rather, as he bites her cheek, the suggestion is of consumption, and nothing further undermines this view. Indeed, by the end of the story the doctor is regretting that Rosa is ‘lost’ to him. Perhaps one can here start to explain the laughter Kafka and his friends are said to have experienced when they read (some of) his stories, something which flummoxes Will Self.
In this moment of carnal ambiguity, one thinks of the recent German cannibal, Armin Miewes. Imprisoned in 2004, Miewes notoriously killed and ate the body parts of a willing male victim in his own home. The (dark) humour here comes when one realises that Miewes’s home was in the German state of Hessen – drop the ‘h’ and that is ‘essen’ – ‘to eat’. The event became the subject of a song entitled ‘Mein Teil’ (‘My Piece’ or ‘My Bit’) by the German metal band Rammstein. The chorus runs: ‘Denn du bist, was du isst und ihr wisst, was es ist’ (‘Because you are what you eat and you know what it is’). ‘Du bist was du isst’ was the catchphrase for the Swedish crisp bread Wasa, popular in Germany for many years; and the wordplay in German speaks for itself. Miewes reportedly intended to sue the band for defamation.
The wound itself is often regarded as symbolic of the female genitalia, which aligns with the reading suggesting sexual violence against Rosa. But there’s another possible wordplay. The doctor looks at the worm-infested wound and says, ‘Wer kann das ansehen ohne leise zu pfeifen?’ Hofmann translates: ‘Who could take in such a thing without whistling softly?’ In the sexualised reading, one could see the whistle as a wolf-whistle. But ‘Ein Pfeifer’ (‘a whistler’) in German also colloquially can mean ‘a loser’. And if Kafka’s doctor is anything, he’s a loser. Whistling softly on seeing a patient’s wound isn’t the sort of thing you expect from a competent doctor. That his maid is possibly eaten by a man who suddenly emerged from a pig-sty is also darkly amusing. Read again the story’s last couple of paragraphs with this in mind, and see if you laugh.
In Griffith’s film, there’s a vague acknowledgement of class issues, but the central message is very distant from Kafka’s. The opening title tells us the moral of the story: ‘The Country Doctor: A Story of the Temporal Deeds that Reap Spiritual Reward’. If Kafka had a moral in mind, it would probably be the opposite: that no matter how one conducts one’s affairs redemption is impossible. At the end of the story he writes: ‘Naked, exposed to the frost of this most miserable epoch, with an earthly carriage and unearthly horses, what am I but an old man adrift?’ Despite the film’s stated moral, it’s clear that Griffith’s doctor also receives (as far as we see) no spiritual reward for his work; he, too, seems nothing but ‘an old man adrift’. What, then, is the film about? Perhaps it is here that the most pertinent aspect of the film for a contemporary audience, and readers of Kafka, can be glimpsed.
Thinking about equivalences after reading Paul Fussell, Self writes:
Snowden’s wound [in Catch-22] and the country doctor’s patient’s wound, surely there was an equivalence here? Kafka is silent on the subject of the First World War – and yet the great efflorescence of his literary achievement begins in its immediate stages. Was Kafka perhaps the greatest proponent of the hollow laughter that rings down the decades – and is this also why we are so driven to regard him as the prophetic voice of the European 20th century, the scryer of its hecatombs and charnel houses?
For Self then, the wound in ‘A Country Doctor’ foreshadows the future. Is Griffith’s film doing something similar? Is it expressing something unconscious? I think so.
Like Kafka’s wound, Edith’s eyes dominate Griffith’s film. If it’s about anything, it’s about dying and dead children and their neglect. The dark-ringed eyes of the child are both an emergence of the repressed and a foreshadowing. But what do they predict? Is it again the historic horrors of the 20th century?
I think not. But perhaps they are speaking for Kafka himself, pleading for him, against the bullying torment his father subjected him to, which he discusses in ‘Letter to His Father’, written the same year as ‘A Country Doctor’. Edith’s eyes speak the unspeakable, about something else the 20th century showed us: what our men have been doing to our children. Priests, doctors, teachers – these were the worst offenders, within institutions that preached spiritual reward while giving cover to sexual abuse. All, like Dr Harcourt and Hermann Kafka, as Antony says of the conspirators in Julius Caesar, ‘honourable men’. Josef Fritzel was unique only in building a prison where he could abuse his daughters in his own home. As Edith Harcourt lies dying, do we see all this in her eyes?