The Trial (1962)
Written & Directed by Orson Welles
The legal system doesn’t consistently deliver justice. Since 1989, over 2,400 people have been found to be wrongfully convicted in the United States. Even back amid the first World War, writer Franz Kafka understood the absurdity of the legal system and its accompanying structures. Sadly, he would pass at the young age of 40 in 1924, but a year later, one of his friends would cobble together the fragments of The Trial and posthumously published the text. While Kafka’s final vision for the book will always remain unknown, it was clear he was using it to examine the systems he lived within, particularly how cruel and cold they can be to the ordinary person. Orson Welles would be approached by producer Alexander Salkind to make a film based on a book in the public domain; this was what the director’s eye drifted to. The result is a masterpiece of visual and narrative excellence.
Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is awakened by a pair of police detectives in his bedroom. They tell Josef he is under “open arrest,” meaning he will not be taken to jail, but he is being accused of a crime and put on trial. The police refuse to tell Josef what the offense is and why they believe he committed it. The police let the protagonist know they will be watching him, and he attempts to go on with his day. He converses with the landlady of his boarding house and fellow boarder, Miss Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), about the visit, but they can offer no insight. He arrives at work only to find his supervisor treating him with suspicion and coworkers apparently colluding against him with the authorities. His Uncle Max eventually arrives and takes Josef to the home of Hastler (Orson Welles), a prominent lawyer, to get legal advice. Reality continues to become stranger as people and events happen without any sense.
Not since Citizen Kane had an Orson Welles’ film perfectly captured his vision. From the opening scene, we are in a waking nightmare, a space where the logic we understand does not apply, so we must discard it. Physical space doesn’t make sense as an office room might open into a courtroom, or a lawyer’s office may lead to a water tower. Josef reacts to this just as you might in a dream, somewhat aware that things are wrong but unable to articulate that and constantly distracted. This oppressive, confusing atmosphere perfectly captures the paranoia Kafka infused into the work. Welles skilfully repurposes unassuming locations around Paris and transforms them into a dreamscape. It feels obvious that David Lynch must have been inspired by this picture as it touches precisely on his recurring theme of existing inside dream worlds.
In the modern context of America, what happens to Josef doesn’t seem so impossible. Every slip of his tongue becomes evidence used against him, reminding us why the “right to remain silent” is crucial to anyone who ends up in police custody. There’s never an attempt by the authorities to hide their collusion, that Josef is being intentionally tormented by a system that has pre-decided his fate. Instead, like a cat who caught a mouse, they are toying with the man, getting off on his growing depression and anger. His uncle’s suggestion to consult Hastler goes nowhere as the lawyer talks in circles and obscures any detail. There is never a sense that Josef will make it out of this ordeal; we can just feel that he is doomed.
It would not seem out of the realm of possibility that Welles was inspired by the McCarthy-era communist witch hunts in the United States just a few years prior. The people victimized in that anticommunist travesty were constantly accused and forced to sit before the Senate and answer questions intended to incriminate them. Intersecting with that was the oppression of homosexuals; Perkins was only out to his close friends and confidantes. The same fervor that surrounded communism was also pointed at LGBTQ people, and Welles stated to a friend that he wanted to use that aspect of Perkins in the performance. Throughout the story, women throw themselves at Josef, attempting to seduce him, often entirely out of nowhere. The character’s reaction to these efforts points at someone who is closeted, trying to engage up to a point because they are being watched.
The cinematography and framing in this picture cannot be understated. For an early 1960s film, it is so ambitious and amazing to watch. Dozens of modern movies can’t live up to the bar Welles set as a filmmaker. One of the most terrifying and awe-inspiring moments has Josef rushing upstairs from a crowd of screaming and pawing young women. Once inside a wooden shanty, you can see their eyes peering through the slats. Their hands reach out for him if he gets too close, and their unnerving giggles are ever-present. Because the film is based on an interpretation of Kafka’s ideas that became the novel, the third act is not quite as strong; it is still a remarkable cinema experience. These images linger with you long after the screen goes dark.