Kafkaesque Books

I am Gregor Samsa: Experiencing the first ever virtual reality adaptation of ‘The Metamorphosis’

Prague, November 1912. Franz Kafka sat on the bed of his room locked from inside, writing letters to his fiancé. He wrote non-stop while his family gathered outside for breakfast.

The story of Gregor Samsa was probably also taking shape in his mind around this time — the story of the salesman who woke up late for work only to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin — The Metamorphosis .

You’re metamorphosed

“Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is about transformation; it’s something you cannot come back from. Metamorphosis VR or VRWandlung — the first ever virtual reality (VR) adaptation of the classic novella — is similar. You find yourself locked inside Samsa’s room and you’re transformed into him. There’s no escape until you exit the room, in this case, the VR world,” says film director Mika Johnson, who, along with 30 artists and support from Goethe-Institut Prague, has created this project.

More than a 100 years have passed since the publishing of The Metamorphosis . It has been adapted into multiple mediums — radio, television, film, animated movie, play, video game, even comic books. But it continues to evoke interest.

“In Prague, Franz Kafka is a business. You’ll find him on chocolate bars, such is the fandom. But most of it is just business. We wanted to treat this project like a piece of art,” says Johnson, speaking to me after the show at Goethe-Institut, Delhi, in September.

Wandlung in German means transformation and the VRWandlung (metamorphosis virtual reality) adaptation of Kafka’s classic may change the way you have experienced it so far.

VRWandlung uses a technology called HTC Vive, which allows you to completely immerse yourself in the space of the protagonist. What sets it apart from other VRs is “roomscale”, which, in layman terminology, means that you have 360 degree access to the space you’re in.

So, not only can you become Gregor Samsa, but you can also walk around the room, peep outside the window, listen to the “raindrops hitting against the metal window ledge”, hear the door banging and Samsa’s father and sister yelling from outside the room, look into the mirror and encounter your grotesque insect-self. All you need to do is enter the dark room surrounded by gauze, put on the VR hardware (helmet with glasses and headphones, gloves, and slippers) and wait to wake up as Samsa.

The bed is undone, the desk is messy, and the alarm clock is ticking away on the chest of drawers. The floor creaks with each movement and you hear the sounds that an insect would hear.

Keeping the beat

Music/ sound is central to the experience. When the VR begins, you’re able to hear a human heartbeat, but as it progresses, the heartbeat becomes rapid, representing that of an insect. The music too becomes intense, contributing to the anxious mood.

Czech voice actors were brought in to act out the roles of Samsa’s mother, father, sister and Mr. Manager from an adaptation of Kafka’s text. Martin Švarc, who performed the voice of Samsa’s father, used a specific accent in German that Kafka’s father, Hermann Kafka, originally from Osek, a Jewish village in southern Bohemia, probably had too.

Model Katia Shapirova was made to pose as the girl in the “pretty gilt frame,” the sole image on Samsa’s wall: she was photographed by Emily Rogers and Mika Johnson on medium format film to represent the symbolic image in the book’s introductory scene: “[The picture] showed a lady done up in a fur hat and a fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared.”

“Five years ago when I came to Prague, I started working on a feature film called Kafka’s Son , which was based on a footnote in Max Brod’s biography of Kafka in which he claimed that the author had a son he didn’t know about. While researching for the film, I came across Reiner Stach’s books on Kafka — in one of them he had reproduced Kafka’s room. It was uncannily similar to Samsa’s room in The Metamorphosis and that’s when I realised that Kafka hid his own room, his own self inside the character of Samsa. That got me interested,” explains Johnson.

Once the idea took seed, Johnson put together teams of artists and sound technicians to bring the project to life. Instead of using digital textures and importing them, he hired two Czech animators who worked in the classical style to construct Samsa’s room in miniature. They reconstructed by hand every small detail inside the room — the bed, the pillows, the desk, the open notebook on his desk, the wallpaper, the floor, all of Samsa’s possessions. A group of 3D artists was hired to scan the room in 360 degrees, which meant taking thousands of photographs and stitching them together.

“Kafka would roll in his grave seeing what we’ve done to his text. But when you have a great work of art, when you have a great story, each new medium gives birth to a new interpretation of that story. It doesn’t take away from what you imagined or experienced when you first read The Metamorphosis , rather it’s meant to give you a new perspective,” says Johnson.

After holding shows in Kolkata and Delhi in September and October, Johnson will be back in India early next year to present his marvel at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2020.

The independent writer is Delhi-based.

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 4:23:09 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/i-am-gregor-samsa-experiencing-the-first-ever-virtual-reality-adaptation-of-the-metamorphosis/article29980561.ece