Both impenetrable and surreal, Orson Welles film adaptation of Franz Kafka's (1883-1925) novel The Trial is a challenge to comprehend, at least in traditional movie-going terms.
Or on an even more basic level: where is the court room where he is scheduled to be arraigned for this crime? What city is this story occurring in? And in what year does this tale occur?
One of the most powerful visuals in the film remains a jaw-dropping tracking shot of Josef K. traversing his office, a colossal, seemingly endless hall where 850 anonymous workers dutifully pound out bureaucratic work around the clock on their typewriters.
He's right, except in the instance of finale, where Orson Welles lets in a glimmer of hope, and Kafka left none. The literary Josef K. died like "a dog" and the movie Josef K, at least in some fashion, dies on his own rebellious terms.
One morning at 6:15 am, Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is awakened from a sound slumber in his lodging house by the unexpected presence of a police man in his bedroom.
Then, from a distance, the executioners throw a bundle of dynamite at Josef, ending his "trial" once and for all. A small mushroom cloud rises from the rubble in the crater...
Orson Welles' The Trial opens with a "pin-screen" depiction of a parable found in Kafka's book, titled "Before the Law."
"It is the topography of The Trial...which calls on a depth of field; places that are very far apart or even opposed in the foreground are next to each other in the background," he writes. "To the extent that, space, as Michel Clement puts it, is constantly disappearing. The view, as the film develops, loses all sense of space and the painter's house, the courthouse and the church are from then on in contact with each other." (Continuum Intl. Publishing, 1989, page 290).
"It's the nightmare aspect of the novel that Welles captures with great ingenuity," she writes. "He turns the vast, crumbling lobbies, arcades, and tunnels of the Gare d'Orsay into a dreamscape, constructed according to Freud's definition of the primary processes of the unconscious: condensation and displacement. One minute the law court seems adjacent to K's office; the next it opens into the apartment of K's lawyer. K is forever opening doors and finding himself where he never expected to be: a corridor jammed with abject petitioners, a closet hidden away in his own office where the accused are tortured. Framed almost entirely from an extremely low angle, the film plays with the danger inherent in even the most familiar spaces. K's paranoia has a kinetic dimension. Perpetually disoriented, he oscillates between claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The cluttered interiors and vast, bombed-out exteriors both have the potential to bury him alive."
For instance, Josef K. continues to be put into situations where he crosses some undiagramed sexual line. The Advocate's mistress (who bears the "physical defect" of webbed fingers) attempts to have sex with Josef K., and that act threatens his case. Josef's boss on the job sees Josef's fifteen-year-old niece and assumes that Josef has been acting improperly with her.
Did his attempted kiss of Miss Burstner in her lodgings initiate her desire to move? Josef isn't certain, but by the end of one particular scene, he is literally carrying her "baggage" around with him, from place to place, trying to find somewhere to put it down.
In The Trial, dreams are reality, the medium is the message; and form is content. And in a world where so many movies are the cookie-cutter results of group-think and corporate-messaging, The Trial fiercely reveals how a director can make the form entirely his own playground.