“It’s a film inspired by the book, in which my collaborator and partner is Kafka. That may sound like a pompous thing to say, but I’m afraid that it does remain a Welles film and although I have tried to be faithful to what I take to be the spirit of Kafka, the novel was written in the early twenties, and this is now 1962, and we’ve made the film in 1962, and I’ve tried to make it my film because I think that it will have more validity if it’s mine.”
– Director Orson Welles, on the subject of The Trial (1962), from an interview posted at Wellesnet.
Both impenetrable and surreal, Orson Welles film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s (1883-1925) novel The Trial is a challenge to comprehend, at least in traditional movie-going terms.
This is especially so if one is hung-up on following a conventional, logical narrative from point A to point B, all the way to Point Z.
Like the celebrated literary source material, the Welles film is maddeningly vague about details that we — as conditioned film-goers — expect.
What crime has Josef K (Anthony Perkins) been charged with? Or on an even more basic level: where is the court room where he is scheduled to be arraigned for this crime? What city is this story occurring in? And in what year does this tale happen?
If you walk through this one particular doorway in the clerk’s office, how do you get…somewhere else?
Should a viewer step inside Welles’ The Trial seeking such clarity of detail and traditional narrative developments, that viewer is missing the point, and will be truly disappointed, and possibly even a little angry. Welles’ film uniformly rejects all attempts to make the narrative accessible in the fashion that audiences have come to expect and even demand.
In The Films of Orson Welles (University of California Press, 1970, page 162), Welles scholar Charles Higham famously wrote that “For me, The Trial is a dead thing, like some tablet found among the dust of forgotten men, speaking a language that has much to say to us, but whose words have largely been rubbed away.”
Yet if one views The Trial as a two-hour visual expression of one man’s subconscious terror and frustration at being devoured “by the System” (or by “The Law”), Welles’ work emerges as something not moribund, but something vibrantly and eminently alive: a breathtaking formalist masterpiece that harnesses form, literally, as content.
The task upon us here is not to “understand” intellectually the experience of Josef K. through the (occasionally banal) dialogue or repetitive episodic interludes, but rather to read and interpret the powerful images as they arrive, and thus feel what it means to be in Josef K’s shoes; lost in a bureaucratic system — a maze — of impenetrable shape and dimension. Welles’ production design, his selection of angles, his choices in casting even, all enhance these feelings of entrapment and bewilderment.
Or to put it another way, The Trial is a film that you fully experience; that immerses you. Shot in stark black-and-white, and loaded with expressive angles, Welles imagines a world totally lacking in reason…even the reason assured by the laws of Physics. For in this world, you can be arrested without reason, feel guilt without reason, and step from one interior chamber into an entirely different landscape, equally without reason.
Everything is connected to everything else, and yet nothing makes sense. Circular logic holds sway. And every stepping to stone to reason is instead uncovered to reveal corruption.
For another– and this is perhaps of primary importance — Welles supplants the book’s small, almost quaint locales with more cavernous, industrial ones. He has modernized the book’s settings to take into account 20th century technology and automation, among other things. One of the most powerful visuals in the film remains a jaw-dropping tracking shot of Josef K. traversing his office, a colossal, seemingly endless hall where 850 anonymous workers dutifully pound out bureaucratic work around the clock on their typewriters.
Still, as author Chris Barsanti suggested in Filmology (Adams Media, 2011, page 90), “the alienated spirit of the film remains resolutely true to that of the book, an awesome achievement given the prickly and untranslatable nature of Kafka’s work.” He’s right, except in the instance of finale, where Orson Welles lets in a glimmer of hope, and Kafka left none. The literary Josef K. died like “a dog” and the movie Josef K, at least in some fashion, dies on his own rebellious terms.
“I am sane. I am innocent. I’ve committed no crime.”
One morning at 6:15 am, Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is awakened from a sound slumber in his lodging house by the unexpected presence of a police man in his bedroom.
In a low angle shot of the doorway and door frame, order is promptly over-turned as a man-in-black invades the immaculate white-on-white bedroom.
Josef is promptly informed by this interloper that he is under arrest, but that he doesn’t have to report to the station. Rather, he is expected to show up at “the Interrogation Commission” at an undisclosed time and place.
Josef is unaware of what crime he has been charged with, but his every move and word is dutifully recorded by a triumvirate of policemen, who want to take his belongings, since he won’t be needing them.
Soon, Josef’s Uncle Max comes to visit, and helps the accused Josef retain the services of an imperious old Advocate (Orson Welles), a man who enjoys his powerful position and lords it over his clients, one of whom he apparently keeps imprisoned in a small cell inside his home.
Josef further descends into the strange world of “The Law,” and on that journey he readily admits “there are so many passageways and lobbies I’d never find my way.” After a time, he encounters a painter and expert in the legal system who tries to describe for Josef the precise, technical differences between “ostensible” acquittal and “indefinite” acquittal. Neither one sounds like exoneration.
The problem is that, after any such a brand of acquittal, Josef K. could be arrested and charged for the same non-descript crime all over again. In which case, he’d have to begin the laborious process of acquittal again too. It’s a never-ending loop of arrest and acquittal, with guilt always assumed but never proven.
Finally, the State attempts to execute Josef K. First, two executioners toss him into a crater on a blighted, industrial landscape, and hand him a knife to do the job, but he refuses to do their dirty work for him. Then, from a distance, the executioners throw a bundle of dynamite at Josef, ending his “trial” once and for all. A small mushroom cloud rises from the rubble in the crater…
“What are you Insinuating?
Orson Welles’ The Trial opens with a “pin-screen” depiction of a parable found in Kafka’s book, entitled “Before the Law.”
After the parable concludes, Welles’ voice-over narration notes that “the logic of this story is the logic of a dream…or a nightmare.”
In the very next instant, we see Anthony Perkins’ Josef K coming to consciousness, in a visual transition that affirms the dream-like, surreal nature of the narrative. He may not be waking up at all.
Understanding The Trial’s story as one of “dream” logic provides the key to making sense of The Trial’s anarchic narrative and visual structure. In dreams, the idea of geography is often sacrificed. In a nightmare, you can walk from your bedroom straight into a grave-yard; or find yourself rolling out of bed into your old high school English class. The mind’s imagination while dreaming is not limited to concrete reality, and so, in The Trial, every door opens into a new reality, and no door ever leads to the same destination twice. This is part and parcel of the film’s absurd or surreal tapestry.
There is simply no way to navigate this bureaucratic maze, and the rule that held sway a minute ago is not the rule that holds sway in this moment, or in the next one, either.
In Cinema 2: The Time Image, author Gilles Deleuze made specific notation of Welles’ provocative use of space in the film. “It is the topography of The Trial…which calls on a depth of field; places that are very far apart or even opposed in the foreground are next to each other in the background,” he writes. “To the extent that, space, as Michel Clement puts it, is constantly disappearing. The view, as the film develops, loses all sense of space and the painter’s house, the courthouse and the church are from then on in contact with each other.” (Continuum Intl. Publishing, 1989, page 290).
What happens to Josef K., over the course of the film, then, involves the visual contraction of his personal “freedom.” As the above-passage notes, his space in the world grows smaller, and smaller, until there is no distance between any locations in his life. This is the invisible vise of “The Law” tightening the noose around his neck. The Law eats up his space, taking over his life. It’s almost imperceptible at first, but soon the contraction of space around Josef K. becomes undeniable.
What remains so amazing and pioneering about this visual approach is that “The Law” or “State” is not represented by any particular voice, person, or locale in the film. Instead, the idea of “The Law” is presented as this crushing, amorphous, intangible thing. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t fight (let alone defeat) something that is intangible. The law, as the film gets at, is an “abstract.”
Amy Taubin, critic for The Village Voice, brilliantly observed Welles’ success in creating this dream logic dynamic and amorphous, crushing threat in The Trial: “It’s the nightmare aspect of the novel that Welles captures with great ingenuity, she writes. “He turns the vast, crumbling lobbies, arcades, and tunnels of the Gare d’Orsay into a dreamscape, constructed according to Freud’s definition of the primary processes of the unconscious: condensation and displacement. One minute the law court seems adjacent to K’s office; the next it opens into the apartment of K’s lawyer. K is forever opening doors and finding himself where he never expected to be: a corridor jammed with abject petitioners, a closet hidden away in his own office where the accused are tortured. Framed almost entirely from an extremely low angle, the film plays with the danger inherent in even the most familiar spaces. K’s paranoia has a kinetic dimension. Perpetually disoriented, he oscillates between claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The cluttered interiors and vast, bombed-out exteriors both have the potential to bury him alive.”
Yet if Josef K is the “dreamer” in this dangerous realm, then the over sized law that threatens to bury him alive is also, undeniably, a result of some persecution complex, or some deep, firmly-entrenched sense of guilt. He confesses this ever-present, nagging feeling of guilt to a fellow lodger, the cabaret dancer Miss Burstner (Jeanne Moreau). He notes that he has always, for some reason, felt guilty about…something. So his dream world takes that shape. It is apparently expressing — and punishing him for — that pervasive sense of guilt.
What might the film’s version of Josef K. feel guilty about? That’s best left to personal interpretation, no doubt, but certainly there’s an undercurrent in the film involving homosexuality, as Roger Ebert notes in his excellent review of the film. The Trial, Ebert writes, “could be interpreted as a nightmare in which women make demands Joseph K is uninterested in meeting, while bureaucrats in black coats follow him everywhere with obscure threats of legal disaster.”
The presence of Perkins in the role is of paramount importance. As he discusses with police “subversive literature and pornography” and verbally slips on the word phonograph, saying it as “porno-graph,” we get the idea that there is more to this bureaucrat than meets the eye. Welles himself famously said that in his film, Josef K is not innocent, but absolutely guilty.
Guilty of what? Not conforming? Harboring an alternative sexual persuasion? It isn’t exactly clear, but like so much in the film, the question of sexual identity roils just beneath the surface, between the images. For instance, Josef K. continues to be put into situations where he crosses some undiagrammed sexual line. The Advocate’s mistress (who bears the “physical defect” of webbed fingers) attempts to have sex with Josef K., and that act threatens his case. Josef’s boss on the job sees Josef’s fifteen-year-old niece and assumes that Josef has been acting improperly with her.
Again and again, Josef is involved in sexual indiscretions that he is forced to refute his involvement with. Did his attempted kiss of Miss Burstner in her lodgings initiate her desire to move? Josef isn’t certain, but by the end of one particular scene, he is literally carrying her “baggage” around with him, from place to place, trying to find somewhere to put it down.
In another sequence, Josef K is even threatened by a mob of adolescent girls, who peer at him through splits in a wooden wall — symbolically splits in his public face or armor. These screaming girls then chase him through an almost Gothic landscape and tunnel which look like something out James Whale’s Frankenstein. Josef is the monster, and the girls are the villagers determined to kill the apparent abomination in their midst.
As film critic William Arnold suggested on the eve of the film’s restoration in 2000, “what the world now knows about Perkins’ personal demons in the wake of his death — his paranoia, his complex sexuality and the lingering impact of Norman Bates on his life — makes him seem an eerily perfect fit for Joseph K., and gives a power and weight to his performance that wasn’t at all evident the first time around.”
I agree with that assertion. It’s entirely possible to read The Trial in another, non-sexual fashion, but in some ways this cinematic tale seems to really be about a man who feels very guilty about his sexual relationships. He fears that the State will literally strangle the life out of him for his failure to conform.
Another way to interpret The Trial is as a critique of the mid-20th century, post-World War II industrial, totalitarian state (Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Russia). As Josef travels further and further up the food-chain of authority in this world’s regime, he uncovers depravity and corruption. The cops who arrest him want to take his belongings, and are willing to take bribes. In the magistrate’s “case book,” Josef finds a pornographic picture stashed between the pages. The Advocate keeps a mistress, not to mention a prisoner. One woman — the wife of a legal official — gives herself bodily to “the accused” and others.
The idea that “power corrupts” is certainly a platitude, but what’s important here is the film’s sense of irony about such corruption. The likable, not-bothering-anybody Josef K is accused of a crime by an entirely corrupt and criminal upper class. Who are they to be pointing fingers?
In contextualizing the story in this fashion, one can see how Josef K. ekes out his final victory. Two representatives of the state attempt to kill him…but they don’t want to stab him themselves. Again, Josef refuses to conform, and doesn’t go happily and willingly to his deathbed. If the State desires him dead, they will have to do it. They will have to get messy.
Importantly, the representatives of the State recoil, and can’t kill Josef with a knife. Instead, they retreat and use a bomb to kill Josef…from a safe distance. Surely this is Welles’ caustic commentary on technological totalitarian states, mid-20th century; perhaps that real heroism isn’t required to serve and propagate them… only cowardice. Easier to drop a bomb (and rely on technology) from some point distant. That way, the murderers don’t have to see or feel the effects of their terrible actions. They can then deny responsibility for them.
Gazing back at The Trial today, one can see how Welles and Kafka had two very different approaches to telling the same story. Kafka’s writing is almost matter-of-fact in tenor, whereas Welles uses every expressionistic tool in his film maker’s quiver to suggest the absurd nature of the story. Where Kafka went for a sense of reality, Welles reaches for a theatrical, dream reality that portrays the State as something akin to a suffocating cloud; an amorphous, intangible monstrosity that can nonetheless oppress, obfuscate, and kill.
Would you like The Trial?
Well, “like is a feeble word,” to quote the film.
You may not enjoy Orson Welles’ The Trial in any conventional sense, but you’re likely to find yourself carried away — and blown away — by the director’s skill in visualizing this nightmarish, surreal tale. In The Trial, dreams are reality, the medium is the message; and form is content. And in a world where so many movies are the cookie-cutter results of groupthink and corporate-messaging, The Trial fiercely reveals how a director can make the form entirely his own playground.