Orson Welles’ film of The Trial has never had a lot of fans. Many of his most ardent admirers have a hard time with it. Even Peter Bogdanovich, a champion of Welles’ work, has said he doesn’t like it. Aside from The Stranger, which the director himself dismissed, it’s the least popular of his movies.
Honestly, I’ve never understood why. The first time I saw The Trial I was completely drawn into it. It has a haunting, hypnotic quality. Watching the film gives me the feeling of being pulled slowly into another world, a strange, irrational world. No question the mood is oppressive, but to me this seems completely in keeping with the novel.
I disagree with the critics who say that Welles’ style is wrong for Kafka, but I understand what they’re talking about. Kafka’s prose is quiet, measured, precise. No matter what setting the stories took place in, to me his world always seemed small and claustrophobic. But in the film Welles’ creates vast, echoing spaces, and long, twisting corridors. The characters have a different presence, too. Kafka sketches the people who populate his world in a very few, deft strokes. Welles, on the other hand, draws them in vivid detail.
But while the two men’s styles are totally different, I think the film comes very close to capturing the essence of the novel. The writer and the director may seem like polar opposites, but they’re not. In Welles’ films the heroes are often brash and arrogant, fighting to impose their vision on the world. In Kafka’s stories we wouldn’t even use the word hero to describe the protagonists, because his anxious, insecure young men are constantly struggling just to keep moving forward. Still, if we look deeper, we might find that the two have a lot in common.
When I first read Welles’ comment that The Trial was his most autobiographical movie, I was surprised. How could this man, who seemed so much larger than life, identify with the weak, petty Joseph K.? But anyone familiar with Welles’ career knows that he worked very hard to create the magnificent mythology that defined his public persona. In fact, for the most part his work is about exposing the lies behind the myths, showing us that these “great” men are deeply flawed.
Behind all the bravado, Welles was terribly insecure. Ignored by the mainstream audience, frequently attacked by critics, begging for money from backers, acting in films he knew were beneath him, he must have often felt very lost and very lonely. And if we look at the comments he made throughout his life about the injustices perpetrated by our governments and the growing tyranny of bureaucracy, his concerns begin to seem much closer to Kafka’s. He begins to seem like a man who feels completely overwhelmed, living in a world that’s indifferent to his existence.
After the prologue that starts the movie, the first image we see is disorienting. Joseph K.’s face upside down as he lies asleep. Waking up, he finds strange men in his room. Angry and confused, he demands an explanation, which they give him. He’s been accused of a crime. They’ve come to investigate. K.’s anger and confusion turn to fear and anxiety. Welles thrusts us into this bizarre, uncomfortable situation at the very beginning, and for the rest of the movie he just keeps pulling us deeper and deeper.
The Trial sounds different from any other film I can think of. Much of it is very quiet. Sometimes the actors’ voices seem to sink into the silence. At other times they resonate in space, echoing off surfaces of concrete and metal. Welles often used post-synched sound, and while this could sometimes be a handicap, here it’s eerily right. It feels as though there’s a slight distance between the actors and their voices, adding to the sense of disorientation. Throughout the film, Welles uses sound to keep us on edge. From the deafening din of a thousand typewriters to the silence of an empty street at twilight. From the nasty chatter of a crowd of wild girls to the frantic clatter of footsteps careening down a corridor.
Anthony Perkins is perfectly cast in the leading role. K.’s rapid shifts from arrogance to anxiety could easily make the character tiresome, but Perkins brings a vulnerability to the role that makes him seem human. I guess a lot of people have trouble relating to the character, but I can totally identify. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t felt like they were battling to stay sane in a crazy world? Jeanne Moreau is stunning in the small role of Fräulein Bürstner, a world-weary bar hostess who shuts K. down with her icy indifference. As Leni, Romy Schneider vibrates with a kinky erotic charge. She’s both seductive and scary. With his usual consummate skill, Akim Tamiroff disappears completely into the role of Block, a pathetic, fawning businessman whose life has been consumed by pleading his case. Welles had a high regard for Tamiroff’s talent, putting him in key roles in four films. And, of course, there’s Welles himself as the Advocate. Apparently he only took the role because his first choice, Jackie Gleason, dropped out, and he couldn’t come up with a suitable replacement. I can’t imagine anyone else in the part. Welles plays the scenes in the Advocate’s bedroom for chilling comedy. Later, during the final dialogue in the cathedral, he’s just chilling.
I have to admit, the ending is a problem. The last exchange between K. and the Advocate in the cathedral was mostly written by Welles. This is where the director departs from Kakfa. In the film, K. rejects the idea of a world without meaning, without hope. He insists that he’s a member of society, and that implies responsibility. He won’t accept the madness imposed by the system. This is the complete opposite of Kafka’s world, where the author’s characters inevitably submit to their fate. In the book, K. dies at the hands of his executioners.
Welles couldn’t accept that. He said in interviews that he believed Kafka would not have written such an ending if the author had lived to see the Holocaust. After the death of six million Jews, Welles could not allow K. to surrender to the system. He felt it was necessary to make a more affirmative statement.
But that left him with a huge problem. Welles knew that he couldn’t give the film a “happy” ending. It wouldn’t have been true to Kafka, or to his own world view. Welles has K. take a stand against the system that’s working so hard to grind him down, but to end the film with some simple triumph would be too easy. And so he gives us an ambiguous conclusion, which doesn’t really work.
Even with my reservations about the end, I still think the film is pretty astonishing. Welles conjures up a frightening vision of the modern world, dominated by an endless bureaucratic maze. He follows K. through the grim landscape of Cold War era Europe, the arid modern apartment blocks and the voluptuous ruins of the past. It may be difficult to watch because it shows a side of the director we’re not used to, a side that maybe we’d rather not see. We’re used to seeing Welles play the supremely confident showman, a larger than life figure who dominates every situation. But if Welles was being honest when he called The Trial his most autobiographical film, then maybe he’s offering us a different, more candid, self-portrait. A portrait of a frightened, insecure little man who’s afraid the world will swallow him completely.