Orson Welles’ The Trial

The Trial starts with a short animation, a parable of a man who arrives at a gate seeking ‘the law’. The gate keeper tells him he must wait before he will be let in. The supplicant waits his entire life without success and finally expires. Josef K., the protagonist in The Trial, is no more successful in getting justice, but thankfully he does a lot more than just sit by a door throughout the film.

Anthony Perkins wants to get away from a man even creepier than he is

Orson Welles was a showman as well as an artist, so his adaptation of The Trial could never be too gloomy or boring. The film is visually striking to an extreme degree – there is barely a single shot which doesn’t grab the attention. It also features a host of fine acting talent including Jeanne Moreau (who was a stage actress of high standing, and in 1962 had already starred in films by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle), Romy Schnieder (who was one of the faces of the 60s), Anthony “Psycho” Perkins and Mr Welles himself. Yes, The Trial is nightmarish, claustrophobic, and ultimately pretty depressing, but it also has bright seams of impish humour, satirical bite and even a dash of sexiness.

The story is pretty simple: Josef K. is woken up one morning by three trilby and mac wearing policemen, and who inform him he is under arrest and will be tried. One policeman explains that he is not under arrest “like a criminal”, instead, the man elaborates, “I get the feeling of something abstract.” Throughout the rest of the film he desperately tries to find out why he is under arrest and for what, while attempting to extricate himself from the clutches of the bizarre, Gothic – and very abstract – legal system who have got their hands on him.

Kafka scholar Michael Löwy has suggested that The Trial is a response to the anti-Semitic trials of Jews in Europe at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In cases like the Dreyfus Affair in France and the Hilsner Affair in Bohemia, the laws of the state were harnessed to persecute individuals who were guilty of a crime that was no crime: the accident of being born Jewish. These injustices may well have inspired Kafka, but the idea at the heart of the book is fable-like and can be related to any age.

As financial backing for the film kept on running out, Welles was forced to shoot in a number of locations – mostly a huge conference centre in Zagreb and the deserted Gare d’Orsay railway station in Paris, but also in Dubrovnik, Rome and Milan too. Bad luck financially worked rather better artistically, as these different exteriors and interiors serve to play up the disjointed, dreamlike quality of the story. One minute Josef K is in a medieval church (incongruously featuring girder pillars) and the next moment he’s walking around blocks of brutalist concrete flats, then he moves on to a dusty Victorian office.

To say that the film has the quality of a dream does not mean it doesn’t make a political point however. It’s easy to see Josef K. as being stuck in Communist Eastern Europe, or any totalitarian state for that matter, with its secret policemen and shadowy courts. At one stage he encounters condemned men who look very much like inmates in a Soviet Gulag or Nazi concentration camp. That key neurosis of the cold war, atomic destruction, is also referenced at the very end The Trial.

Thankfully for Josef, and for us, Welles gives us some light relief from all the bizarre legal rigmarole and political nightmare. This mostly comes in the form of women who show him kindness.  Firstly there is Jeanne Moreau’s Marika Burstner, who lives in the same boarding house and gives him a kiss. Then there’s Elsa Martinelli’s kind courtroom guard, Hilda. Most of all, Leni, the mistress of the ineffectual, infuriating advocate, flirts with him and points him towards potential help. Leni is played by a kittenish Romy Schneider. These encounters lead him to wonder at one stage whether women might offer him his one chance at clemency in the trial.

Anthony Perkins is a most apt Josef K. Playing awkward, weedy characters was his forte, and Josef K.’s peculiar passivity does not seem out of character at all. Perkins was a sort of geeky everyman who was ideally suited to playing K. Let’s not forget Mr Welles himself, who plays the eccentric, pompous Advocate. From the moment his figure is revealed, he commands the screen.

One part of The Trial that might strike a cord, is its representation of offices. Josef K. works in a huge hall (the Zagreb conference centre) filled with serried ranks of desks. It is a searing vision of a nightmarish office environment, (and also influenced a similar scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil). The office even contains a huge mainframe computer, amusingly described as “one of those electronic gimmicks that give you the answer to anything.” If only.

“It is often better to be in chains than to be free,” says Welles’s Advocate. This example of doublethink sums up the twisted world of The Trial, a place where nothing is clear. What is certain though, is that this is a masterful exposition of Kafka’s dark world that is thoroughly engrossing.

The Trial packshot

The Trial is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday 10 September, 2012.

The Blu-Ray version includes some great extras:

– Welles, Kafka and The Trial documentary
– Welles, Architect Of Light documentary
– Orson Welles, Tempo interview
– Interview with Steven Berkoff (actor, playwright) – adaptations of Kafka’s The Trial and Metamorphosis
– Deleted scene
– Trailer
– Booklet on the movie written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic and author of Discovering Orson Welles (2007), the editor of This Is Orson Welles (1998) and consultant on the 1998 re-edit of Touch Of Evil

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