The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

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