“The Trial” (1962) Review

Dir. Orson Welles; Anthony Perkins, Romy Schneider, Orson Welles
[4 out of 4 stars]

One fine morning just after 6 a.m., Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins) is woken by noises in his room. Two men have entered and tell him that he has been arrested. K. has no memory of committing a crime, and repeatedly tells these men that he is innocent and does not recognise their authority. Nonetheless, he has been summoned by the Law Court and must appear before them. K. claims ignorance as well as innocence of his crimes, but no one believes him. Realising that he cannot fight the case on his own, K. turns to the Advocate (Orson Welles), a famous lawyer who has won–so he claims–many cases. The Advocate begins submitting pleas, none of which are read by the Court, and K. grows discouraged. He dismisses the Advocate and decides to fight the case on his own, but before he is able to get home, he is seized by two men in coats and taken to the outskirts of the city. They set him down in a quarry, strip him of his clothes, and execute him.

Watching The Trial (1962) is like stepping into someone else’s nightmare. From the first moments, the tone is of overwhelming confusion; the viewer is distanced from any psychological insight and is not privy to any additional information. K. says he is innocent, and we want to believe him, but at the same time, there always seems to be something he isn’t telling us. Things don’t quite add up: the Advocate continually stresses the importance of written documents, but then remarks that the first plea is never read; the Court officials tell K. he is late to an important meeting but never told him when or where it would take place; and not once do we meet a judge or juror, only the Examining Magistrate, who, we are assured, is very low on the hierarchy. But these mysterious elements do not function as plot holes, but rather generates an atmosphere of intentional confusion and paranoia. The mechanised judicial system envisaged in The Trial can never be questioned; it simply exists, drawing the accused (and the viewer) into its grasp, and we must figure out how to deal with it. As Welles says in his preface to The Trial, his film “has the logic of a dream…or a nightmare.”

The nightmarish quality of the film is brought out largely through the atmosphere created by the lighting. Welles pays homage to Kafka’s influences, drawing on the Expressionist lighting of films the author himself loved. Shadows loom up behind the Advocate and the priest, creating almost monstrous figures reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Hallways and staircases seem eerily too long for humans and are always in half-darkness; the cathedral scene toward the end is particularly ominous, as the priest appears out of nowhere, his face lighted from below like a Frankensteinian mask. These elements frame the film partially within the genre of horror (although it would be a mistake to call The Trial “scary”), and in doing so, creates a mistrust of everything we experience.

The physical space of the film is as uncanny as the plot. As in Kafka’s novel, characters always seem to be looming up from the darkness or disappearing down long hallways. Two moments in particular exemplify this. The first is after K. has been talking with the washerwoman, Hilda (Elsa Martinelli), who is carried off by a law student (Thomas Holtzmann) into the labyrinth of the Law Court offices. As K. attempts to follow into a hallway with many locked doors, we hear footsteps in the distance. The camera pans over to a doorway through which a long set of rafters is visible. A man is coming down the hallway, bent at the waist, and for a long time, it seems as though he is not coming any closer. Suddenly, the wheezing man is there, and K. seems as surprised as the viewer that the man was able to cross such a seemingly great distance. The second moment is after K. leaves the painter Titorelli’s house. Leaving the odd man’s room room, which sits like a water tower at the top of a winding stairway far away from the city, K. goes through a second set of doors. Standing on the threshold, K. blocks the camera’s view of until he shifts slightly to the side and reveals a long hallway: the Law Court offices. As K. walks through the hall, the space begins to overwhelm and suffocate him. He gasps for air and grows hysterical, and just when it seems like it couldn’t get any worse, some girls who live in the building begin to chase him, out of the building and under a tunnel and through courtyards until K. arrives in a cathedral. But even here he is not safe; a pulpit rises up from the darkness and a priest begins to speak to him; suddenly even the Advocate is there and begins lecturing him on the parable “Before the Law.” This sequence, like many in the film, plays with claustrophobia and fear of the dark; long before The Shining (1980), Welles has instilled in his viewers a mistrust of hallways. The effect is that we come to suspect that the Law Court controls all and that this control of space itself is part of the injustice.

Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. seemed an odd choice at first, given his role just a few years earlier as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). But The Trial is a film about guilt, and Perkins brings out both the nervous, fretting side of the protagonist, as well as the violent side. After barging in on his neighbor, Miss Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) while she is changing, K. begins chattering and wringing his hands, but kisses her forcefully. He is obsessive about maintaining his status above all else, frequently mentioning his position in the bank, and verbally abusing other accused men whom he views as inferior. Perkins’s role as Norman Bates also comes out in moments, as his relations with women are often predatory. Take his interaction with the Advocate’s maid/nurse, Leni (Romy Schneider), for example: despite her odd attraction for the “accused,” K. comes across jealous and manipulative, demanding if each man is her “lover” or not. What this adds up to is a picture of K. as a not-entirely-innocent man, complicating the supposed distinction between “innocent” and “guilty” altogether; we are not entirely sure if we should sympathise with K. or not. In creating this ambiguity, Welles challenges our own understanding of our own innocence.

Welles’s film stays remarkably true to Kafka’s novel until the ending, but a crucial change in the death sequence dramatically reframes the story.  In Kafka’s novel, K. is stabbed by the two men: “‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him” (The Trial, 229). In Welles’s version, the two men want him to take the knife himself, but he refuses: “No, you’ll have to do it yourself.” In the end, the two men light a stick of dynamite and throw it into the quarry and K. stands there, laughing. Rather than shame, the ending emotion of Welles’s film is hope–there is a pause before the dynamite explodes–or perhaps rebellion, as K. has rejected the unjust system of the Court. Welles has famously said that he changed the ending due to the events of the Holocaust: “In the end of the book he lies down there and they kill him. I don’t think Kafka could have stood for that after the deaths of the six million Jews. If you conceive of K as a Jew, as I did. It just made it morally impossible for me to see a man who might even possibly be taken by the audience for a Jew lying down and allowing himself to be killed that way” (This is Orson Welles, 274). In this view, K.’s act is a defiant one; he rejects the bureaucratic, patriarchal machine until the very end.


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