"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Insurance Man, by Alan Bennett (1986)

Portrait of the artist as a bureaucrat.

Prague, 1945. An old man called Franz comes to consult a doctor about lung disease. As the doctor ask him about his professional past, the man recalls a strange episode of his life, before the First World War, when he briefly worked in a dye factory.

One day Franz notices a curious patch on his torso - which spreads days after days. As soon as the industry finds out, they sack him, claiming that the rash has nothing to do with the dye aspersions to which he is regularly exposed. Franz, who has just become engaged, does not dare to reveal anything to his fiancée. On the advice of the sympathetic boss’ assistant, Beatrice, he goes to the Workers Accident Insurance. It is the beginning of a nightmarish quest through the maze of the Insurance Company, peopled with embittered doctors, insensitive functionaries, and endless strings of maimed workers patiently waiting for compensations that never come. More than compensation, the young man wants someone to tell him what is wrong with him. Maybe the elusive Doctor Kafka, to whom his file has been entrusted, will be able to help…

Alan Bennett’s The Insurance Man is a curious piece which deliberately puts you on wrong tracks (assuming there is a right one). The extended flashback about the incident of the dye factory sheds light into Franz’s present condition, but in a very roundabout way. How the two are connected becomes clear only at the end, in a darkly ironic twist of fate that Kafka wouldn’t have disowned.

The atmosphere of the film is, if I may say, straightforwardly Kafka-esque. Franz develops “scales” on his skin, which make his appearance monstrous and turn him into a pariah, like Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis ; his doomed struggle with a tentacular bureaucracy will be familiar to readers of The Trial. At the complete opposite of Bennett’s minimalist TV monologue A Woman of No Importance, The Insurance Man uses a full range of cinematographic effects to recreate the claustrophobic maze of the Insurance Company, shot in shades of blues, greys and blacks. A crazy old woman reminiscent of Bleak House’s Miss Flite acts as Franz's “guide” through the bureaucratic inferno.

The play is peppered with black humour, such as the initial shot - a close-up on a man’s face, whose full meaning is revealed only by the subsequent zoom out. One of the best passage has to be the doctor’s monologue, extolling the virtues of pessimism in the face of a crippled woman, naked and silently crying– its conclusion is that far from seeking compensation, the victims of work accidents should pay for the invaluable insight that they gained into the cruelty of life.

Kafka points out at some point that the workers who come to see him all smile when they speak about their accidents. The reason, he suggests, is that they feel they have to apologize somehow for the horrible accidents that happened to them through no fault of their own, because they have been formatted to think that way. The character gives a chilling dissection of unalloyed capitalism, which allows individuals to get injured because of appalling working conditions, and then discards them as unfit to work while putting the blame of them.

But things aren't that clear cut. For a start, we never know for sure whether Franz's skin skin disease was indeed caused by dye aspersions at work, as him and Kafka suppose. The other workers do not seem to suffer from it, and Franz’s rash disappears mysteriously a couple of month later. “I just got engaged” is the answer that slips out of Franz’s lips instantly, when he is asked if anything changed in his life recently. The two elements, it is suggested, might be linked. The atmosphere at the house of Franz’s in-laws is easily as stifling as the Insurance Company, and the breaking off of the engagement comes as a real liberation.

Bennett explains in an introduction to the play (available on the DVD Boxset Alan Bennett at the BBC) that The Insurance Man is not so much about Kafka as what he created. Nevertheless it features an intaglio portrait of sorts. Interestingly Kafka’s writing activity is never touched upon. Far from the clichéd image of “the neurotic writer”, Kafka is shown as socially adept, looked up by his colleagues and appreciated by his superior who shower him with promotions. Daniel Day-Lewis, oozing charisma, gives the ambiguous portrait of a man of superior intelligence, acutely aware of the distress around him and of the unfairness and absurdity of the system, but ultimately powerless.

The Insurance Man (UK, 1986). Directed Richard Eyre; script by Alan Bennett. For Screen Two, BBC. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Hines, and Jim Broadbent.

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