Franz Kafka’s Existential Parable “Before the Law” Gets Brought to Life in a Striking, Modern Animation

“Before the law sits a gate­keep­er. To this gate­keep­er comes a man from the coun­try who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gate­keep­er says that he can­not grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in lat­er on. ‘It is pos­si­ble,’ says the gate­keep­er, ‘but not now.’ ” So begins Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law,” a short sto­ry first pub­lished in 1915 but still res­o­nant just over a cen­tu­ry lat­er.

It takes no great inti­ma­cy with the work of the man who also wrote the likes of “The Meta­mor­pho­sis” and The Cas­tle, which ulti­mate­ly drove his name into the lex­i­con as a byword for absurd­ly intran­si­gent bureau­cra­cy and the irony of strug­gling against it, to fig­ure out whether the man ever does get to see the law. Most read­ers now first encounter the text of “Before the Law” when they read a priest telling it to Josef K, pro­tag­o­nist of Kafka’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished 1925 nov­el The Tri­al. Some see it before they read it in the form of the pin­screen ani­ma­tion (by Alexan­der Alex­eieff and Claire Park­er, the mas­ters of that recher­ché art) that pre­cedes Orson Welles’ polar­iz­ing cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of the book.

A few years ago, the Barcelona-based ani­ma­tor Alessan­dro Nov­el­li cre­at­ed his own update of the para­ble, The Guardian. Using a mix­ture of two- and three-dimen­sion­al ani­ma­tion in a stark, line-drawn-look­ing black and white, it envi­sions the man (sport­ing a thor­ough­ly mod­ern beard and pair of severe­ly tapered pants) and his jour­ney through moun­tains, woods, and cities to the gate. Once he reach­es it, his life­long stand­off with the gate­keep­er opens up a num­ber of unex­pect­ed visu­al realms, tak­ing us atop a chess­board, inside an alarm clock, beside falling domi­nos, deep under­wa­ter, and up into the night sky.

Unlike Alex­eieff and Park­er’s straight adap­ta­tion, The Guardian extends the sto­ry: Kafka’s stern sen­tinel and his utter­ly impass­able por­tal turn into a chal­lenge aimed more at the man’s for­ti­tude. “Wher­ev­er it is you go to now,” says the gate­keep­er after he has final­ly giv­en the aged and weak­ened pro­tag­o­nist his chance, “remem­ber this gate, and that this gate exist­ed and was opened just for you. Yet you nev­er found the strength to cross it.” In Kafka’s orig­i­nal, when the gate clos­es, it clos­es with an exis­ten­tial final­i­ty; in Nov­el­li’s it re-opens “for the ones who will come. For the ones who will be brave.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kafka’s Para­ble “Before the Law” Nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles & Illus­trat­ed with Pin­screen Art

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Watch Franz Kaf­ka, the Won­der­ful Ani­mat­ed Film by Piotr Dumala

Kafka’s Night­mare Tale, ‘A Coun­try Doc­tor,’ Told in Award-Win­ning Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion

Franz Kaf­ka Sto­ry Gets Adapt­ed into an Award-Win­ning Aus­tralian Short Film: Watch Two Men

What Does “Kafkaesque” Real­ly Mean? A Short Ani­mat­ed Video Explains

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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