Film Reviews

The Trial Orson Welles

Rating - 7/10

Orson Welles' adaptation of Franz Kafka's existentialist novel The Trial (1962) is a labyrinthine year-long account of absurdity and a man's inaccessibility to the legal system. Moreover, the novel and film are studies of escalating disillusionment and critiques of societal hierarchies.  Appropriately, Welles commences the film with his own voiceover, reciting a rephrased version of the priest's parable (in chapter nine of the novel) over a series of hieroglyphic slides. "Before the law there stands a god," he booms with an omnipotent intonation that recalls the power of Kafka's original text.  The forthcoming tale metaphorically discusses a man's perpetual attempts to access a sacred door secured by a porter.  At the end of the man's life, he poses the question to the doorkeeper.  "Every man strives to attain the law.  How is it, then, that in all these years no one has ever come here seeking admittance?"  The doorkeeper responds without a shred of compassion, "No one else but you could ever have attained admittance... The door was intended for you, and now I'm going to close it."  Essentially, Welles' efforts to initially elicit this parable are a blunt preface and commentary on the nature of protagonist Joseph K.'s arresting dilemma.  As a work, The Trial actively debates the existence of free will and a corrupt judicial system, both of which propagate a corroding reality.  Welles, in fact, speaks directly to the viewing audience following the allegory's conclusion, stating that the "logic of this story is the logic of a dream."  A sinister environment synonymous with the term "Kafkaesque" advances that notion as massive set pieces emphasize a world bearing down on K.  In his essay on Welles' The Trial, film scholar Professor Jeffrey Adams further strengthens this conception:

By projecting the expressionist look of film noir onto The Trial, and by emphasizing the sense of disorientation, paranoia, and alienation that the noir worldview shares with Kafka's unique rendering of German Expressionism, Welles was able to create the cinematic equivalent of that strange blend of nightmare absurdity and theatrical farce that now goes by the name of Kafkaesque.

 While the film is aesthetically effective and generally faithful to Kafka's text, it is stricken by the miscast Anthony Perkins as the confounded hero.

Perkins, as the insolently innocent character of young bank teller Joseph K., turns in an anxiously naïve performance.  In the first act, when the inspector invades his apartment to place him under arrest for an unknown crime, K. is rendered as a nervous and bumbling school boy, mellifluously proclaiming his innocence, pacing back and forth, and mispronouncing "phonograph" as "pornograph."  The adolescence inhabits his vocal inflections, too, in the subsequent conversation with fellow night-owl tenant Fräulein Bürstner.  As a sharp contrast to her commanding personality, K. becomes completely submissive to her inquiries, unloading a constant string of apologies and even bowing away feebly at the sight of her changing clothes.  Cumulatively, Perkins' portrayal here lacks the strength of character in Kafka's novel, which is significant in establishing a consistency of awareness; K.'s incompetence should rather be an uninhibited obstinacy.  One might argue that Perkins' behavior is simply a facility to the sort of transformation associated with his courtroom speech in the presence of hundreds of officials.  However, even in the face of a jarring domestic interruption, the character requires a ubiquitous self-confidence, and it's almost completely absent in K.'s introduction where he is reduced to a near-infantile state.  The alterations to this introduction are not without benefit, however, as Welles allows vital information to emerge through K.'s discussion of his childhood with Ms. Bürstner.   Confessing that he feels "sick with guilt" even when in the right, K. accounts for his father and teacher accusing him of misbehaving to establish a sense of order, and these reminiscences parallel or foreshadow to the unfurling events of the film.

Kafka's formal and poetic dialogues do not translate to film particularly well, but Welles manages to reword the text in a natural prose to increase fluidity and reduce stiltedness.  In the case of K.'s philosophical rhetoric or monologues, the director closely abides to Kafka's original musings to expose K.'s burgeoning intelligence and paranoia.  Although the dialogue becomes increasingly eloquent, the second half of the film gradually becomes conveniently staged in terms of narrative sequence, particularly with penultimate scene in the cathedral.  While Kafka is able to leisurely break the The Trial's ten chapters to instigate an entirely separate scene, Welles acquires the more difficult task of moving K. from one event to another seamlessly.  Unfortunately, by linking several chapters without a definitive dissolve, events seem too auspiciously arranged.  Representative is the concluding act in which K., in a nonplussed panic, maneuvers away from impoverished painter Titorelli to the law court offices to the cathedral in a tortuous series of interconnected hallways and tunnels.  Of course while the scene clearly appears premeditated, it nevertheless plays into the dream logic in which the film and novel operate.  The novel more assertively projects a verisimilitude with K.'s disorientation elicited through sheer baffling interaction, but Welles' creative license allows him to steadily integrate surreal camera methods and askew angles to heighten ambiguity.  In this sense, Welles is unfaithful to Kafka but manages to establish an artistic validity nonetheless.  Similarly, his reconstructed events in the cathedral reinforce earlier premonitions.  In the film, K.'s lawyer, Hastler (played by Welles himself), mysteriously appears, having left his sick bed to warn K. explicitly about his misguided efforts to defend himself.  While this complements the parable in the opening minutes of the film and once again seems to be a product of that surreal noir realm, Hastler's entrance is intrusive and partly unbelievable.

Drawing heavily from the fantastical facets of film noir, Welles favors consistently dimly-lit compositions and a cast of dubious characters for The Trial.  The bizarre intermittent jazz score further aids the mood of an unraveling enigma.  For instance, when Fräulein Bürstner appears, a suave bassline demurely eases in to suggest the presence of a femme fatale.  As the children hound K. while ascending a spiral staircase to Titorelli's loft, chaotic piano dances with him at tempo, clashing with the children's hollering.  Additionally, in the second chapter of the novel, "First Interrogation," K. faces a brusque interrogation by the officials; the scene visually draws influence from the oppression of the final scenes in Fritz Lang's film M (1931) where the mob probes and batters Hans Beckert.  While The Trial actually downplays K.'s intimidation in the courtroom, the immense set piece and ominous mood remain intact to convey the constancy of impending doom.  It is Welles' immortal voice that additionally unifies the film's revisions and even explains personal intentions.  At its conclusion, Welles' speaks once again in place of a credit sequence, listing the actors in order of appearance.  This technique symbolizes his confidence in the picture with total control over the production process for the first time since the legendary Citizen Kane (1941).  Unfortunately, in this streak of creative control, the prior sequence proposes a more ludicrous and maniacal fate for Joseph K.  The character's developing lunacy coalesces with the other dreamlike sequences in the film yet simultaneously feels far removed from the tonal coherence of the previous 115 minutes.  But regardless of the initial or sudden hiccups in Perkins' performance, The Trial still remains one of the strongest tales of injustice in twentieth century literature.  While the film understandably does not achieve the refinement of its literary counterpart, it is nonetheless a product of Welles' honed sense of the obscure noir, which he developed in previous expeditions like The Stranger (1946), Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958).