“As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armor-like back, and if he lifted his head a little, he could see his curved brown abdomen, divided by arch-shaped ridges, and domed so high that the bedspread, on the brink of slipping off, could hardly stay put. His many legs, miserably thin in comparison with his size otherwise, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”1 Thus begins Franz Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis.
Kafka’s short story always fascinated David Lynch, a director whose films are just as strange as the world painted the Czech author. It appears that Lynch first read The Metamorphosis sometime around 1970, when, after finishing The Alphabet (1968), he sent the script of The Grandmother to the American Film Institute for a $5000 financial grant, which he won. He made the film and was accepted into AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies. Once there, as Olson writes, “in addition to watching movies and learning how to build a film, Lynch did some reading in his American Film Institute days. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis fascinated the young man with its surrealistic, quantum-leap transformation of a man into an insect, its lurking dread, black humor, and its expression of psychological states in physical forms.”2
Lynch has stated in a number of interviews, most notably his conversation with Chris Rodley in Lynch on Lynch, that:
I identify a lot with the character [Gregor Samsa], but I don’t wanna go into all the reasons why. I wrote a script. But I’m not entirely happy with the script. And something is just, uh, not right about it, something’s missing, and maybe it will pop in later on. This beetle costs so much money to make, and even so, I don’t know if Technology is, um, really, ah, ready to, uh, manu… To build a beetle that work like I would like it to work. But if you told me you could build a perfect beetle, ah, then I would concentrate, I would, I would sit down and really concentrate on the story and reading and reading it. And I think in a little while I might, ah, you know, solve the problem. I don’t like to say again that I love Franz Kafka because everybody says that. But I truly love him. We had a plan with Frantisek Daniel, to make a film based on Kafka`s story The Metamorphosis. I’ve even finished the storyboard, but the problem is the beetle. In Kafka`s story the man metamorphoses into a beetle. It would have been good to make it as a mechanical puppet five years ago, but now it would be possible to do it only with computer animation. And that is very expensive. Maybe after another five years the prices will be lower and maybe than it will be possible to make it. That would be wonderful.3
Now, however, it is not the insect that is the problem.
Lynch once went further in his admiration for Franz Kafka, saying that he feels as if the writer could be his brother:
The one artist that I feel could be my brother – and I almost don’t like saying it because the reaction is always, “yes, you and everybody else” – is Franz Kafka. I really dig him a lot. Some of his things are the most thrilling combos of words I have ever, ever read. If Kafka wrote a crime picture, I’d be there. I’d like to direct that. For sure. I’d like to direct a movie of The Trial. Henry, the hero of Eraserhead, gets into Kafka’s world a bit. Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn’t understand it at all.4
Indeed, anyone who has read Metamorphosis or The Trial knows that they are stories of seemingly innocent heroes not knowing what is happening to them or why.
This life-long obsession started many years ago, even before Lynch made Eraserhead. One of his first scripts was Gardenback, which Nieland describes as “another story of a bad home – here, a parable of adultery figured through the monstrous growth of an insect in the attic (and head) of a married man, which wreaks havoc on his conjugal happiness.”5 The script was never produced, but even its précis shows the undeniable influence of The Metamorphosis.
There are many instances of transformation in the cinematic (and television) works of David Lynch. The idea of duality, doubles and doppelgangers is a recurrent theme in his career. This is also the main theme of Kafka’s world, especially The Metamorphosis, in which a man becomes alienated from his own body after transforming into a giant insect. As Walter Benjamin writes about Kafka (and much the same could be said about Lynch), “man is on stage from the very beginning, but the drama is not a human one. Instead, the movements of these creatures divest the human gesture of its traditional supports; they are far from the continent of man. Such creatures, then, are the receptacle of a primary alienation, a nonpersonal forgetting – and their most forgotten alien land is their own bodies.”6
One of the most notable cases of metamorphosis in Lynch’s cinema is the transformation of Fred to Pete in Lost Highway (1997). Nicholas Rombes describes this in his essential essay Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics:
One of Lynch’s unproduced projects is an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which Lynch says he has “moved […] to the 1950s – ’55 or ‘56.” The [Lost Highway] script makes it clear that Fred actually becomes Pete in a way that is worth quoting at length:
“Fred brings his shaking, tortured hand to his forehead. He pulls his hand down across his face squeezing it as it goes. As his hand passes over his face, Fred’s features are removed leaving a blank, white mass with eye sockets…
“Fred’s blank face begins to concort and take on the appearance, feature by feature, of Pete Dayton.
“Fred Madison is becoming Pete Dayton.”7
Nieland also points to this subtle homage to Kafka’s world: “Perhaps motivated by Lynch’s failed attempts to make a film of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, early reviewers described the obscure events of the film’s pivotal prison sequence, following Fred’s apparent murder of Renée, as either a literal, perhaps supernatural, transformation into Pete Dayton.”8 Similarly, Olson quotes Barry Gifford on these literal transformations: “Gifford recalls that he and Lynch first built on the director’s question, What if one person woke up one day and was another person?” Lynch and Gifford then “melded” the idea of distorted, dual, and transformed identity with “a scary thought that the director and Mary Sweeney had talked about late one night driving home from the Los Angeles shoot of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). What would you do if anonymous videotapes were left at your door, tapes that showed you sleeping in the middle of the night?”9
In The Metamorphosis, Kafka never describes how Gregor changed into the insect. In his films, by contrast, Lynch sometimes directly shows us such transformations – which are often visually inspired by Francis Bacon’s paintings – while at other times he omits this from the film.
Whereas in Lost Highway, Lynch shows the transformation from Fred to Pete through a combination of fast motion, slow motion, blinding lights and ominous music, Mulholland Drive follows in the style of The Metamorphosis by not showing the transformation at all. Lynch’s 2001 film tells the story of an aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), newly arrived in Los Angeles, who meets and befriends Rita (Laura Elena Harring), an amnesiac hiding in an apartment which belongs to Betty’s aunt. Mulholland Drive is punctuated with a plethora of multiple worlds and double identities. With Betty’s sudden transformation into Diane we again have the Lynch favorite theme of the descent from good (Betty) to evil (Diane), but without the expressive demonstration seen in Lost Highway. Here, the metamorphosis is denoted through a single camera movement: a dolly into a blue box, which signals the moment that Betty becomes Diane and Rita becomes Camilla.
Moreover, it seems that Betty had undergone a transformation and Rita is the alter personality. In other words, it seems Betty and her doppelgänger coexist and Betty is ignorant of this. Their uncanny similarity to each other can be seen as an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But, more importantly, it is also a reference to their hidden, unforgotten “feeling” of being the same person, a feeling which escalates in the renowned “Silencio” scene.10
It is impossible to watch Inland Empire (2006) and not to think about Kafka, since the whole atmosphere of the film recalls the unsettling mood of The Trial – a novel which charts a man’s shrinking status at the hands of an oppressive state power, after being accused of a crime he is unaware of and which is never explained to him – as well as hinting at The Metamorphosis. Moreover, as Olson describes “the key Inland Empire scenes in which [Laura] Dern, after climbing a punishingly high, dark staircase, sits in a dim, grimy room and tells her most intimate thoughts and feelings to a grim, affectless confessor, are worthy of the master Czech writer. The unnamed Balkan city Lynch shows us in Inland Empire is actually Lodz, Poland, where over the years he has befriended a group of artists and actors. Kafka’s home was Prague, Czechoslavakia, where Lynch has visited to record music with the Prague Symphony. In Inland Empire, Lodz provides the ancient, dank stone streets, labyrinthine passageways, and eerily empty architectural spaces that Kafka conjured into the artistic archetype of haunted Eastern Europeanness. It’s said that the past is present, and as Dern experiences selves and events that have gone before, she personifies the title of Kafka’s autobiography: I Am a Memory Come Alive.”11
The trope of metamorphosis also appears in the Twin Peaks works (the three television series and the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Laura Palmer, who we later realise led a double life, is dead, agent Dale Coopers (Kyle MacLachlan, who incidentally played the role of Josef K. in the 1993 film based on Harold Pinter’s screenplay adaptation of The Trial) from FBI goes to Twin Peaks to solve the murder case. The name of the city itself plays with the notion of duality, let alone the people living there. Across the 18 episodes of the recent third season of Twin Peaks, Lynch multiplied the number of dual identities, which were already prevalent in the show’s original run. No one, in this world, seems to be him or herself – something always seen in Lynch’s works. Almost all the residents of the small town of Twin Peaks seem to be hiding behind masks or doubles.
Dale Cooper (who in the third season is seen in different shapes as Evil Cooper, Dougie Jones – a blend of Jacques Tati’s heroes and Kafka’s stereotype bureaucratic workmen – and finally the real Dale Cooper), Diane (evil Diane and good Diane trapped in the body of a frightened eye-less girl), Laura’s father and seemingly her mother and a few other habitants of the seemingly calm and rosy Twin Peaks have malicious doppelgangers who come from the Black Lodge, passing through the labyrinths of the Red Room to unleash evil. While Lynch’s flirtation with the idea of metamorphosis can already be seen in season two (with Josie’s transformation into a desk knob, for instance), the director’s interest in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is much clearer in Twin Peaks: The Return.
In episode 3 of the third season, FBI assistant director Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) is sitting in a room – his Washington office, as it happens, although we are only seeing it for the first time now. He whistles the song “Engel” by Rammstein while a large portrait of Franz Kafka hangs on the wall, as if looking at him. Another picture on the wall – behind Gordon – shows the Trinity nuclear test, the first atomic bomb test which took place in New Mexico in July 1945. Gordon/Lynch ends up sitting in a room with his “brother from another time” and beholds the evil taking over the world. As spectators, we are ready for more metamorphosis, such that it may be through these ever-changing faces and identities that we will finally be able to stop the devil, something I will return to shortly. This scene may be the first scene in Lynch’s body of work that shows his source of inspiration without any disguise, something the filmmaker had always sought to avoid, given that he is known for being the master of questions and enigmas rather than answers and clarity.12
In the third season of Twin Peaks, Lynch was constrained to bring back certain characters whose actors had passed away – most notably David Bowie, who played Philip Jeffries in Fire Walk with Me. Jeffries is incarnated in season three as a giant machine, who not only talks but gives coded messages to Dale. Popular consensus had it that this machine looks somewhat like a kettle, but Lynch insisted in an interview that, “I sculpted that part of the machine that has that tea kettle spout thing, but I wish I’d just made it straight, because everybody thinks it’s a tea kettle. It’s just a machine.”13 This transformation is dazzling for the audience, but in light of Lynch’s love of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis this comic incarnation makes absolute sense, even if we are never to know why the machine should resemble a teapot.
In the end of season two, The Arm (Michael J. Anderson) – or, more to the point, The Man from Another Place – told Dale in the Red Room that “When You See Me Again It Won’t Be Me.” And indeed, when we see him again in Twin Peaks: The Return he is not a person anymore. Instead, he is a tree with no leaves but with a pulpy reddish head and a menacing voice. This is the purest and closest Lynch comes to the notion of metamorphosis as seen in Kafka.
This thin tree with its many branches and twigs is strikingly analogous to what Kafka describes in the beginning of The Metamorphosis when he writes of the insect which Gregor had transformed into as having “many legs, miserably thin in comparison with his size,” while, elsewhere, Kafka makes mention of Gregor’s “jittery legs”. Indeed, whenever we see The Tree it is difficult not to recall Kafka’s depictions of Gregor at various points in The Metamorphosis: “he had only these many little legs, which were continually fluttering about, and which he could not control anyhow”, “his little legs struggling among themselves, if anything worse than ever, and saw no possibility of bringing calm and order to this unruliness.” The shape of the tree’s talking head is quite similar to Kafka’s description of Gregor as having “curved brown abdomen” – although in the series the belly changes color like a neon light, from red to bright brown and yellow. It may sound as an over-reading, but Kafka detailing Gregor’s insect life, wrote “He felt a slight itching high on his abdomen.” And high on the Tree’s head, we sense a glowing reddish thing which seems like Tree’s eye or even brain!
Twin Peaks ends in one of the biggest enigmas of Lynch career. Dale, at Judy’s Diner in Odessa, Texas, finds the address of a waitress called Carrie Page, who resembles Laura Palmer. Believing she is Laura, he convinces her to drive with him to Twin Peaks. They reach the Palmers’ house and ring the bell, but the door is opened by other people.14 Confused, Cooper asks Carrie what year it is. Carrie hears Sarah calling Laura’s name and shrieks. The house goes dark.
One theory hoping to explain Twin Peaks has it that the devil reigns over the world, ruling it with the help of his doppelgangers. Over the course of three seasons and one film, agent Dale Cooper underwent various metamorphoses, and saw the devil face to face. But he could not stop Bob/evil. Here, Lynch takes us back to that dark, bleak world depicted with a touch of humour and surrealism in Kafka’s works (The Metamorphosis, The Trialand The Castle in particular), in order to find a way to relieve his characters from evil. This is the ultimate crossroad where Lynch and Kafka meet, look around at humanity and shake their heads.
The cinematic world of David Lynch abounds with doubles, doppelgangers and metamorphoses. Sometimes these are clear and visualised as such. At other times they are concealed, or merely curious cases of deformity, such as the hideous head of titular character in The Elephant Man (1980) or the doomed child of Jack Nance character in Eraserhead (1977). The Metamorphosis and Franz Kafka are the life-long obsession of Lynch. He never managed to make his adaptation of The Metamorphosis and, as he implied in a recent interview,15 may well never make it. But the different ways he has found to metamorphose his nightmarish ideas and characters are the closest the cinema comes to what we read in Kafka’s literary masterpiece.
- All the quotes from The Metamorphosis are taken from Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Joyce Crick, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Greg Olson, David Lynch: Beautiful Dark (Maryland: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 2008), p. 54.
- Chris Rodely, Lynch on Lynch (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 56
- Richard A. Barney, David Lynch Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), p. 38.
- Justus Nieland, David Lynch. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), p. 120.
- Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 122.
- Nicholas Rombes, “Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics” in Erica Sheen et al. (eds.), The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions (London, UK: Wallflower Press, 2004), p. 73.
- Justus Nieland, David Lynch, op. cit., p. 120.
- Greg Olson, David Lynch: Beautiful Dark, op. cit., pp. 436-437.
- It is worth noting that Lynch’s decision to cast Watts and Harring to play the double roles, beyond serving his goal of playing with the theme of duality, can also be seen as an ode to Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.
- Greg Olson, David Lynch: Beautiful Dark, op. cit., pp. 676-77.
- Martha P. Nochimson writes that the portrait of Kafka was printed on the shooting script of Lost Highway. See David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire” (University of Texas Press, 2014), p. 32.
- Daniel Dylan Wray, “David Lynch on Bowie and the Music that Inspired the New Twin Peaks”, Pitchfork, September 19, 2017. https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/david-lynch-interview-on-bowie-and-music-that-inspired-the-new-twin-peaks/
- In his article “‘Twin Peaks’ Ending Explained: How to Make Sense of David Lynch’s Baffling Finale”, Zach Sharf explains that, “Sarah Palmer didn’t answer but Alice Tremond did, and she told the pair that she bought the house from a Mrs. Chalfont. These last names should sound familiar, as they trace back to Black Lodge entities (Ms. Chalfont was at the trailer park where Theresa Banks died, and she later appeared to Laura as Ms. Tremond and gave her a painting that acted as a portal from her bedroom to the lodge).” https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/twin-peaks-ending-explained-answers-part-18-finale-david-lynch-1201872863/
- Attending the Rome Film Festival in 2017 to receive a lifetime achievement award, Lynch stated: “Once I finished writing the script for a feature film adaptation I realized that Kafka’s beauty is in his words. That story is so full of words that when I was finished writing I realized it was better on paper than it could ever be on film.”. https://www.screendaily.com/news/david-lynch-talks-twin-peaks-future-david-bowie-and-kafka-project/5124003.article
(originally published at Senses of Cinema)