(France, Germany, Italy, 1963, 118 minutes, b&w, 35mm)
It is the source of that coined term so beloved of existentialists: "Kafkaesque." Franz Kafka's The Trial pictures a bland, ordinary man, Joseph K., suddenly heaved into the mechanism of a killing bureaucracy. At first glance, it seems like a film idea better suited Stanley Kubrick, or Fritz Lang, directors who loved the spider-and-fly games of an ineffectual man struggling vainly against his fate, whether institutional or metaphysical. In the years since his spectacular first exile from Hollywood, in the wake of the explosive failure of It's All True, his ill-fated Brazilian docudrama, Orson Welles had been drawn increasingly to stories of people people caught in the pincers of destiny, first assaulted and then psychologically diminished by the crumbling of the normal. In the fun house mirror sequence of The Lady From Shanghai, the shaggy-dog whodunit of Mr. Arkadin, or the baroque ruins of Hank Quinlan's border town empire in Touch of Evil, Welles' characters often seemed bewildered by the wreckage of certainty and routine strewn around them at the end of their films.
After It's All True, the organizing of a film became agony for Welles; dozens of projects, sold enthusiastically to some European "producer" or other over late-night cognacs, evaporated in the cold light of day. Contracts were never signed, or, once signed, never honored. Films were never started. Or, films were started, and never finished. Welles had come to know the cul-de-sac world of Joseph K quite well by 1962, when the film, after three years of debilitating deal-making, was finally shooting on the streets of Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
After his producers ran short of money, The Trial became another of Welles' "touring productions," a Flying Dutchman of a film whose actors traveled around the world with Welles while he sought financing and locations. After Zagreb, Welles alighted in Paris, where he fumed about the ambitious, studio-shot film The Trial was to have been; now, it was forced, like Joseph K himself, out into the streets. Still awake as dawn broke one morning, Welles noticed a huge, abandoned train station, the Gare D'Orsay. Journalist William Chappell wrote of Welles' inspired inspiration:
By 7:30 he had explored the lunatic edifice, vast as a cathedral: the great vulgar corpse of a building in a shroud of dust and damp, surrounded and held together by a maze of ruined rooms, stairways and corridors. He had discovered Kafka's world, with the genuine texture of pity and terror on its dark and scabrous walls, real claustrophobia in its mournful rooms; and also intricacies of shape and perspective on a scale that would have taken months and cost fortunes to build.
For a man who had once, in more whimsical days, said, "A motion picture studio is the biggest train set a boy ever had," Welles now reenvisioned the shattered old station as the studio his backers had failed to find for him. He found small, cubicle-sized spaces in the station, suitable for intimate moments in Joseph K.'s life, and had these redesigned as bedrooms and offices. In other scenes, the remains of the station's Art Nouveau decor exudes a strange air of the festive gone rancid. His cinematographer, Edmond Richard, used reflected light to capture a dry, flat tone in Joseph's world.
It's customary to imagine Kafka's world as sleek and efficient, its terror arising from its sheer functionality. By shooting in the ancient train station, Welles created another view of the bureaucracy entirely. Here, the regime is a once-glorious structure, gilded and proud, designed to express the grandeur of its motives. Over the years, though, the dreams that were once to be served by the grand engineering symbolized by the train station have grown dusty, even forgotten. The glass is broken, the furniture battered. Mice have chewed the draperies. Now, it is only the machinery that still works, kept well-lubricated as the ornamentation grows rusty and decrepit.
Such was to be the fate of Welles' film, for many years thought to be one of his lesser efforts. Its ownership contested, its receipts dismal at best, the film rattled quietly around its occasional screenings, another of Orson Welles' marvelous might-have-beens. Charles Higham wrote of the film in 1970, "For me, The Trial is a dead thing, like some tablet found among the dust of forgotten men, speaking a language that has much to say to us, but whose words have largely been rubbed away." Now, with this restoration, The Trial again speaks the language that all people who fear a government without soul hear with such dread.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
"A film of infernal brilliance, perhaps the most exciting picture Orson Welles has made since The Magnificent Ambersons." — Time Magazine
"Gorgeous! Sparkling! Riveting! A startling cinematic equivalent of the author’s surreal vision."
— Tim Purtell, Entertainment Weekly
"The Trial is Welles’ finest film since Citizen Kane … apart from [Kane], no other film of Welles’ bears so clearly the stamp of his personality. One senses his presence in every shadow, in every angled shot. He dubbed no fewer than eleven of the speaking parts … The key to the style of the film lies in the subjective track and dolly, repeated in endless permutation … Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. gives the best performance of his career."
— Peter Cowie, The Cinema of Orson Welles
The following is taken from a review by Edward Guthmann that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2000:
For Orson Welles, making films was nearly always a Promethean struggle—an endless battle to raise money, maintain his independence and protect his work from meddling studio executives.
"The Trial," which opens today at the Castro, was the rare exception. Released in 1963 and recently restored to its original form, "The Trial," Welles once said, "was the happiest period of my entire life."
Based on the 1925 novel by Franz Kafka, "The Trial" stars Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, a bank clerk arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Determined to vindicate himself, Joseph sinks into a bureaucratic maze without end: Corridors lead to corridors, red tape to more red tape. The more Joseph tries to understand, the more impenetrable it becomes.
"The Trial" wasn’t a commercial hit—few of Welles’ films were— but in many ways it’s his most personal.
In a prologue, Welles describes the film as having the logic of a nightmare—a world in which nothing can be mastered. Looking back at Welles’ career and the struggles he had to keep his work intact, it makes sense that he would identify so strongly with Joseph K’s paranoia.
"He thought it was the most autobiographical movie he ever made," says filmmaker Henry Jaglom, a close friend until Welles’ death in 1985. "He and I shared this recurring dream of being in jail and not knowing why. He said the difference between us was that in his dream he never got out."
According to Jaglom, "The Trial" "isn’t that much Kafka, (but) a lot of it’s Orson." Instead of depicting Joseph K as tiny, hunched-over and weasel-like, Welles cast the tall, strikingly handsome Perkins. Instead of setting the film in the small, claustrophobic offices that Kafka described, he used vast spaces that emphasized the character’s desolation and helplessness.
Casting Perkins brought another, unspoken element to "The Trial." Welles knew that the actor was a closeted homosexual, Jaglom says, and used that quality in Perkins to suggest another texture in Joseph K, a fear of exposure.
"The whole homosexuality thing—using Perkins that way—was incredible for that time," Jaglom says. "It was intentional on Orson’s part: He had these three gorgeous women (Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli) trying to seduce this guy who was completely repressed and incapable of responding."
"Psycho" had come out only two years earlier, and Perkins’ role as cross-dressing killer Norman Bates had made an indelible impression on moviegoers. It was Welles’ intention, Jaglom says, to echo and reflect that persona in "The Trial."
"Orson thought it was important to use whatever a famous actor brings with him to a role. The closetedness of Perkins’ homosexuality, the mama’s-boy thing from ‘Psycho’—he thought that brought a whole wonderful subtext.
"I remember him saying that they never talked about it, but he felt that Perkins definitely knew what he was doing."
Originally, Welles planned to shoot "The Trial" in Zagreb, on elaborate studio sets that he'd designed himself. But when funding fell through, he discovered the perfect location by glancing out his Paris hotel-room window.
"I saw two full moons," Welles said. "And then realized that they were the two clock faces of the Gare d’Orsay glowing in the night, and it was really a sign. And from four in the morning I wandered around the deserted old railway station and found everything I needed for the picture."
The abandoned Gare d’Orsay was later converted to the Musee D’Orsay, an art museum.
For more than 30 years, the only known negative for "The Trial" was thought to be lost, and available prints of the film were truncated and in horrible shape. After film historian David Pierce discovered the negative in a New York office building, "The Trial" was restored.
It’s ironic, but not unusual, that Welles’ reputation suffered in his lifetime and is now, 14 years after his death, so much greater.
The following New York Times review by Bosley Crowther appeared February 21, 1963. It is typical of the baffled and outraged reviews that appeared in the press at the time of the film’s American release:
Whatever Franz Kafka was laboriously attempting to say about the tyranny of modern social systems in his novel, "The Trial" is still thoroughly fuzzy and hard to fathom in the film Orson Welles has finally made from the 40-year-old novel. …
Evidently it is something quite horrific about the brutal, relentless way in which the law as a social institution reaches out and enmeshes men in its complex and calculating clutches until it crushes them to death.
At least, that is what this viewer gathers from the crazy and symbolic stuff that Mr. Welles and an excellent cast of actors have regurgitated on the screen. That is what seems to be the message, in this wild and wooly account of the serialistic experiences of a baffled, rebellious young man after he has been mysteriously arrested by secret agents and prepared for some sort of formal trial.
But don’t expect us to analyze it or clarify what Mr. Welles has rendered pictorial out of Kafka, any more than he has done so himself despite some impressive staging and some startling pictorial effects, achieved by shooting much of the picture in the old abandoned Paris railway station, the Gare d’Orsay, he has not reduced the weird proceedings to a clear dramatic line or arrived at an intellectual conclusion that is readily understood.
The strange geometric arrangements of rooms and people at work, of overstressed filing cabinets and the faces and forms of characters make pungent visual stimulation, but they only bewilder the mind. They do not fall into patterns that convey congealing ideas….
"Say what you will, but The Trial is the best film I have ever made." — Orson Welles
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