The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)

I’ve never really been exposed to the works of Franz Kafka before, well, other than Martin Scorsese’s loose (and excellent) Kafka adaptation “After Hours.”  So if I was gonna immerse myself in the strange, strange world of this man, it might as well be at the hands of that great cinematic auteur and rebel Orson Welles.  “The Trial” is certainly a bizarre-looking film, and if Welles’ adapted screenplay has truly retained much of Kafka’s original work, that look and that feel would certainly be appropriate.

What Welles’ “The Trial” is above all is an achievement of sight: the cinematography, the set design, and that feeling of emotional claustrophobia.  For much of this movie, I’m pretty sure most if not all of the shots are low-angle, serving to either make poor Joseph K’s pursuers and suspicious coworkers appear more menacing or to make Joseph himself, arrested (but not incarcerated) for crimes his detainers won’t make known to him, appear like a helpless child in settings both large and small, but universally imposing.  There’s Joseph’s apartment, with a ceiling that’s far too low (not unlike the newspaper room in “Citizen Kane”), and by god Welles wants you to see that ceiling and other ceilings in low angle shot after low angle shot to emphasize how prison-like this theoretical society is.  And from the outset at least, it works.  Whether it’s that tiny, box-like apartment or the factory-like office facility with row after row of desks or that huge “court room” filled to the brim with men who have no idea why they’re laughing, you always get that sense that Joseph is lost in this sea of bureaucracy and the unsympathetic law, running from nowhere to nowhere.

But from nowhere to nowhere is exactly where the movie goes, to its detriment.  The first half was wonderful to me: my first exposure to Kafka was a series of thought-provoking Samuel Beckett-esque dialogue that was just within the realm of relevance: not realistic in any way, incredibly circular with paradox after paradox, but still a fascinating use of the Socratic Method and the pondering over the theoretical implications of actions ranging from Joseph dressing in front of these strange men who have come to arrest him, to fooling around with the neighbor.  You combine dialogue like that with those sets that could be real but could also be from another dimension entirely, and you’ve got a nice complement of Kafka-esque sights and Kafka-esque sounds.  And thank god for Anthony Perkins: on the coattails of “Psycho” (now ironically starring in a bizarre twist on Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite ‘wrongfully accused’ genre) and perfect for the role of meek everyman-turned-wannabe revolutionary Joseph K.  I was completely sold on this guy as the innocent victim, first being arrested for reasons unknown, then seeing those same no-nonsense arresting officers being whipped in a closet, then getting lost in a sea of other lost souls in the legal system and the endless mess of his attorney’s (or ‘advocate’) apartment.

It’s a shame, then, that something with such promise as a brilliant allegory and criticism of legal bureaucracy had to degenerate into something so out there and nonsensical that it became…boring.  When we just see Joseph wax philosophical with the Advocate’s nurse or maid (one of those, couldn’t tell 😛 ), or Joseph stumbling through the messy back room of a courthouse (or was it a church?  I couldn’t tell, and really couldn’t care), or Joseph standing there as that useless fat man the advocate goes on about his own self-importance in a meaningless world, what little coherency existed in that Kafka kind of way is now utter chaos.  Sure it looks pretty and expressionistic from moment 1 to moment the last (especially late as Joseph visits the prison-like hut of a supposedly helpful painter, young girls’ eyes watching through every slat), but even that gets tiring.  If “Citizen Kane” was the perfect marriage of innovative techniques ranging from deep focus to specific camera angles to perfect set design, then “The Trial” takes that wedding and turns it into an all-out orgy.

So who’s to blame for “The Trial” starting off great and losing steam as it insists on going for broke with the expressionism?  Is it Kafka for the story that I’m assuming Welles more or less stayed true to?  Is it Welles, his obsession with giving every single shot an ‘ooh-aah’ effect perhaps signifying an extreme arrogance in this moviemaking outsider (he did after all play the advocate in a role that you know was supposed to be scene-stealing but wasn’t, and was rumored to have voiced at least 11 other characters, and even recited the closing credits for god’s sake)?  Or, in a world where the legal system is so mindlessly bureaucratic that Joseph faces a grand tribunal for crimes he hasn’t even been notified of or it’s practically a matter of life and death when Joseph dares to dismiss the advocate as his representative, is such an incoherent mess even an issue?  Doesn’t Kafka and Welles’ dystopic legal system, much like our own, run in circles anyway?  Maybe a problematic screenplay and overwrought images that ramble to no end illustrate Joseph’s hopeless situation perfectly?

Look at that, I think I just had a Kafka moment.


4 comments so far

  1. Eli on

    The book is very different (the first half of the film probably follows it better than the second).

  2. Mango on

    “(he did after all play the advocate in a role that you know was supposed to be scene-stealing but wasn’t, and was rumored to have voiced at least 11 other characters, and even recited the closing credits for god’s sake)?”
    Orson’s “arrogance” comes from his lack of funds. He didn’t want to play the Advocate, but chose to when he couldn’t find an appropriate actor (was it Jackie Gleason he wanted?); in many of his European films he was forced to dub many actors because he had such poor audio equipment and was unable to bring in the original actors for post-dubbing. There are many choices in his European films that may seem like arrogance but are actually economy. You should know these things, Simon.

    On a side note about the film, Orson said that Joseph was “guilty as hell!” Have you read any of Welles’s interviews? They are fascinating, awesome, and highly recommended.

  3. Simon M. on

    I was only speculating on whether Welles was arrogant or not, you know. Might’ve just been a front of his, but he just comes off that way to me sometimes. Appreciate you clearing some of this up, though.

  4. Mango on

    Ah, well Orson deserves his name cleared. People have labled him arrogant since the days of The Magnificent Ambersons, but the story behind his career and every interview he has given reveals a very humble and sincere man (one reason I recommend the interviews).

    Welles’s on-screen persona is always bigger than life, though, so it is no surprise the label has persisted (but bigger than life characters were his speciality, and they interested him precisely because they were all tremendously flawed).

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