The late master filmmaker Orson Welles once stated in an interview that The Trial was the best film he ever made. That’s highly unlikely since the American Film Institute voted Citizen Kane to be the greatest American film of all-time, but some argue that his adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel of the same name published in 1925 was his most ambitious. That could be true, especially considering many people believed Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare to be “unfilmable.” That belief was additionally reinforced by the fact that The Trial was technically an unfinished work from Kafka that was only released after Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, found a chapter that brought the story to a conclusion and edited the text for publication, which ultimately leaves the story open to much speculation and interpretation. It’s interesting to wonder how Kafka would have felt about any of this, since it’s believed that he actually wanted all of his unfinished work destroyed after his death in 1924. Regardless, Welles decided to give it the old college try by putting his own stamp on a film version of the novel. I had never seen the film, but was always interested in the material, so I recently took some time to review it for a fresh perspective on an effort that has polarized critics of Welles over the years.
As difficult a film as The Trial must have been to make, I found myself very pleasantly surprised by the end result. The movie has its problems, but they shouldn’t detract from the production’s overall impact. It’s simultaneously disturbing, darkly humorous, maddening, and completely engrossing on a variety of levels. The story concerns a man, played perfectly by Anthony Perkins (article), who wakes up one morning to find officers in his room who inform him that he’s under arrest. However, they won’t inform Perkins of the crime he has supposedly committed, who his accuser is, nor do they take him into custody. The authority figures simply instruct him to show up at a designated place for his ambiguous trial. The rest of the film details Perkins’ distressing journey through a surreal maze of bureaucracy to not only try to remedy his predicament, but to find out exactly what’s happening to him and proclaim his innocence. Perkins—relatively fresh off his creepy turn in Psycho—is truly magnificent as the mild-mannered, paranoid and indignant protagonist totally bewildered by the situation he finds himself in, whose problems only become worse with every move that he makes. He eventually gets a meeting with “The Advocate,” played by Welles in a sinister yet properly restrained performance, who could serve as his lawyer for the case after Perkins’ attempt at confronting the kangaroo court himself for answers goes horribly wrong. However, Welles may or may not have the best intentions when it comes to his client’s interests and could just be another cog in the vague litigation machine. Perkins also turns to a painter named Titorelli (William Chappell)—who has inside information due to being charged with painting portraits of all the top judges—for advice (filmed in a beautifully constructed sequence), but finds his solutions to be equally unappealing. It all leads to an ending that could be construed as hopeless and nihilistic, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Sure, while the story itself can initially be viewed as enigmatic, it’s open to an interpretation that anyone could make sense of for their own self (just as Kafka’s novel surely does), and given the Herculean task of properly conveying the source material to the screen in such a way as to achieve the same effect, Welles pulls it off brilliantly.
Kafka’s novel, like much of his writing, is a metaphor for the human condition. Therefore, the film is obviously about much more than an indictment of the judicial system. This is evident in the opening scene that has Welles narrating Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” over a very creative “pinscreen” sequence (though, one can’t help but wonder if this was done because the budget was running out, as was often a problem for Welles) of prints created by artist Alexandre Alexeieff that details the story of a man who tries to gain entry through the gate of “the law.” He’s denied access by a powerful guard, but told that he may eventually be able to pass through. After all, every man should have access to “the law.” The man waits there for years and tries everything he can to convince the guard to let him pass through the gate. That includes trying to bribe the guard, but he’s never allowed access. Finally, when the man is on his death bed he asks the guard why in all these years no one else has ever come to the gate even though everyone seeks “the law.” The guard responds that no one else can gain access through this gate because it has been designed solely for the man, and now the guard is going to close the gate… The parable perfectly sets up the rest of the film. While the relationship between The Trial and “Before the Law” is left up to the viewer to interpret, one could gather that the man at the gate in Kafka’s short parable is representative of Perkins’ character (and by extension, all individuals) in The Trial, and that individuals must look within themselves for answers to life’s questions and not try to find them in other people or things. This is especially evidenced in Perkins’ relationships with various women in the film. Jeanne Moreau as Perkins’ neighbor, Elsa Martinelli as a courtroom clerk, and Romy Schneider as the Advocate’s caretaker and mistress all serve as guides for Perkins (all thinly-veiled sexual metaphors, by the way), but they don’t really provide any satisfactory answers, either. That’s why, while Perkins’ eventual fate after dealing with the absurdity his life has become could be viewed as depressing, it can also be seen as celebratory, because he ultimately affirms his individuality and refuses to bend to the will of the system. This is demonstrated perfectly when Perkins witnesses the Advocate’s abuse of another one of his clients (Akim Tamiroff), who Perkins is expected to behave like. It’s a conclusion that’s incredibly moving, and it’s doubtful that Welles’ adaptation gets the credit it deserves since the film most likely doesn’t have the vast audience that it could have considering the original negative was believed to be lost for many years.
As far as the movie’s flaws are concerned, they do present some trouble. Since Welles rearranged chapters and took certain liberties with the story’s narrative, the film comes off a bit disjointed as Perkins jumps from place to place. It doesn’t give the viewer a proper sense of time passing (which is supposed to be about two years), and while one could argue that’s precisely how a dream operates, which was definitely Welles’ intention, the gimmick tends to work against itself. However, Welles makes up for this with incredible cinematography that includes long tracking shots and distorted wide angles. The world of Kafka’s novel was cramped and claustrophobic, but Welles went in the opposite direction and used wide open spaces to create a desolate dream-like world where decrepit secret hideouts strangely open into large file rooms and women do laundry right outside a courtroom. The only other major problem is the ending. Welles should have left Kafka’s ending alone, but instead chose to shoot his own that presented definitive finality. Critic Roger Ebert astutely pointed out that nothing in Kafka’s world truly concludes. But hey, nobody’s perfect, not even the man who made Citizen Kane. I’ll give The Trial four stars out of five.