143. THE TRIAL (1962)

Le procès

“It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream—of a nightmare.”–Orson Welles’ prologue to The Trial

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FEATURING: , Orson Welles, , , , Akim Tamiroff, William Chappell

PLOT: Josef K. awakes one day to find two investigators in his apartment, who inform him he is under arrest and will have to stand trial. When he asks what the charges are, the police tell him it’s not their place to talk about that. The authorities release Josef on his own recognizance, and he spends the rest of the movie navigating a legal labyrinth, trying to find a way to absolve himself of a charge no one will specify.

Still from The Trial (1962)


  • Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial” in 1914 or 1915; it was never completed and was only published after his death.
  • Feeling that studio interference had ruined Touch of Evil (1958), by the 1960s Orson Welles had sworn off directing for Hollywood studios for good (he continued to accept acting jobs). From 1958-1962 he worked on a never-completed adaptation of “Don Quixote,” then was approached by French backers about making a film in Europe; he would be given complete creative control. He was given a list of public domain titles to adapt and chose “The Trial.” (Unfortunately for the financiers, their research was faulty; it turned out that Kafka’s book was still under copyright at that time, and they were forced to negotiate licensing fees).
  • The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia, Italy and France. Welles shot the courtroom scenes and many of the interiors at the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris.
  • Welles dubbed dialogue for eleven of the actors, and reportedly even overdubbed some of Perkins’ lines.
  • In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich for his biography This Is Orson Welles, the director said that he suffered from recurring nightmares of being put on trial without knowing why and stated that this film was “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me… It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.” The director of Citizen Kane also said that The Trial was “the best film I ever made.”
  • The production company never registered a copyright on The Trial in the United States and for many years it was in the public domain, until the copyright was restored under the GATT treaty.
  • The negative of the movie was thought to be lost, but a copy was discovered and restored in 2000.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Welles begins the movie by narrating Kafka’s mysterious parable “Before the Law,” about a man who withers and dies while waiting his entire life to pass through a doorway blocked by a guard. The fable is illustrated by elegantly grotesque slides created through “pinscreen” animation (the images are created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins) by Alexandre Alexeïeff. Near the end of the movie Welles, now in character as the advocate Hastler, retells the fable, this time projecting the slides directly onto the face of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) as he stands before a screen. Welles’ hulking shadow, invisible to K as he faces Hastler, lurks over Perkins’ shoulder like the impassable guard of the tale—or like an angel of death.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Written at the dawn of the twentieth century, before the horrors of World War I, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is a masterpiece of nightmare literature and a harbinger of the angst that would come to define modernism. Orson Welles, the great grayscale poet, proves the perfect adapter of Kafka, imprisoning the beleaguered Josef K. in bars of light and shadow. Kafka’s story was a picaresque journey through abstract interactions with a sequence of bureaucrats and seductresses that, frustratingly, never brings him any closer to answering the central riddle of his indictment. Rather than elucidating Kafka’s text, Welles’ narrative decisions further muddy it, stringing poor Josef K along with a promise of an answer that never comes. I imagine Kafka applauding in his grave.

Original U.S. trailer for The Trial

COMMENTS: After the dreamlike prologue telling of the man who fruitlessly waits an entire lifetime for admittance to the Law, The Trial proper begins with Anthony Perkins’ eyelids fluttering as Josef K. awakens to find the doorknob opposite his bed turning. We know nothing of the central character before this moment, and what little we do learn in the succeeding story is of little consequence. He works as a clerk in a large, factory-like concern whose main product appears to be paperwork (this office clearly inspired the one in Brazil). He rents a room next to a cabaret singer who may double as a hooker, and he has an uncle and a niece who look out for him despite having troubles of their own. He is a dependable citizen, but timid and ordinary; his very name is anonymized, redacted from the record. And although the obscure accusation which he is immediately saddled with by the policeman who strides through his door will never be lifted, his own character won’t remain stable. Most of the time K. will be nervous and stuttering, on the defensive, but at other moments he will become a great orator. He will be the doomed accused but he will also become an informant and the instrument of others’ punishment. The spindly Perkins will usually be photographed so that he’s dwarfed by the massive architecture of the nameless city (K. has to stand on his tiptoes to reach the handle of the courthouse door), but when he defies his lawyer Welles shoots him so he towers over the bedridden advocate.

K. himself is cryptic, a shifting symbol and the unstable center of a story from which many dark themes radiate. Kafka’s eternally fascinating fable contained layers of meanings, on top of which Orson Welles, perhaps, overlaid some of his own peculiar obsessions. I’ll focus on three of the themes here—bureaucracy, totalitarianism, and defiance—while realizing there are many other paths worth exploring in this murky parable, whose lasting appeal partly comes from its susceptibility to an endless variety of interpretations.

Formally, The Trial is a black parody of the bureaucratic legal system. The film’s French title, Le Procès (from the original German “Der Process”) calls to English-speaking minds the notion of justice as a procedure to be followed, rather than an ideal to be lived up to. In his journey through the guts of the legal machine K. will be processed, the way sausage is processed. K. himself is a clerk, “a man of regular habits” who is confident that his papers are in perfect order. K. is proper and polite and always follows the proper channels to defend himself, but his precision and diligence won’t help him through his upcoming trial. Instead, his desire to organize the case in order to make sense of it will be mocked by a process that’s obsessively ordered, but utterly senseless. The police can’t tell K. what he’s charged with. Their domain is incarceration, not information; it’s not their job and they refuse to overstep their bounds. Every step of K.’s journey is ruled by arbitrary protocols and rituals, but without any specificity. “With your arrest I get the sense of something abstract,” K.’s sympathetic landlady tells him. “It’s so abstract I can’t even see how it applies to me,” K. agrees. Cops, judges and lawyers make constant references to “these matters” without ever specifying what the matters are. The legalistic dialogues are masterfully vague, creating a sense of dread while dancing around its exact source. At one point an adviser describes the legal strategy of “ostensible acquittal,” which sounds good but has the downside that “your whole dossier continues to circulate, up to the higher courts, down to the lower ones… these oscillations and peregrinations, you just can’t figure ’em.” As K. continues his tour of courtrooms, lawyers, and judicial portrait painters, the charge itself is forgotten; he decides to argue on without knowing what the case is about. The charge itself is a MacGuffin; it’s the ritual, the process, that matters and that horrifies. The Trial is not about one man’s particular case: it’s about absurd measures and unopposable forces. The law and appeals to legal principles and procedures are ridiculous, because K. exists is a world where justice doesn’t; there is only a shadowy, unstoppable power bent on crushing him for no reason at all.

Although Kafka died before the rise of Fascism and Communism, “The Trial” foresees that the marriage of bureaucracy—a system capable of turning people’s lives into figures on a page, their thorniest problems into entries in a ledger—with governmental power would inevitably lead to a world where individuals’ needs were swallowed up and forgotten in a vast machinery, a situation ripe for abuse by the power-hungry. Welles lived in a Cold War world where Kafka’s nightmares had recently come true, and the director made the totalitarian trappings of K.’s paranoid prophecies apparent. When K. arrives at his first interrogation, he has to make his way through a courtyard full of men in their underwear wearing signs with identifying numbers on them, like inmates in a concentration camp. The citizens in K.’s society can’t trust each other. K.’s own woes seem to originate with three informants from his office; at least, these men show up in his neighbor’s apartment on the morning of his arrest, looking as nervous and guilty as K. does when the police confront him. They appear in the background at various times in the story, nodding politely, but we never learn anything about them. K., however, becomes an informant himself, almost inadvertently; he accuses the policemen of asking him for a bribe, and later discovers them being gruesomely punished. (His “responsibility” for their suffering reinforces his own feelings of guilt). Once he’s under suspicion, his neighbor, a cabaret dancer and possible prostitute, no longer wants anything to do with him, fearing guilt by association. She is thrown out of her apartment, possibly due to K.’s offhand comments to his landlady; at least, K. seems to think so. We come to realize that K. lives in a police state where any citizen can inform against any other, sometimes by accident. A fellow-accused makes K. promise to exchange secrets with him so that they will each have equal blackmailing power over the other in the future. The Interrogation Committee holds its meetings in an unknown location. They have arranged for questioning to take place outside of business hours so K.’s normal routine won’t be interrupted, so that nothing will seem out of the ordinary to his co-workers. The ugly process is tastefully hidden from public view. K. correctly intuits that the accusations against him must be happening to a great many others, a fact which gives him the unexpected courage to make a defiant but useless speech before a gallery oddly packed with hundreds of spectators who laugh and applaud at inappropriate times.

Defiance is the only victory K. can claim. Like all of us, K. is under a death sentence. He meets and dallies with three women in the course of the movie; when they seduce him or he seduces them, he is able to briefly forget the sword hanging over his head. Late in the movie he seeks help from a painter, but art can’t save him any more than law or love can. K., who begins the movie with his voice cracking with fear from his very first meeting with the police, even before he knows he has been arrested, grows more confident as the movie progresses and his case deteriorates. Instead of being obsequious to his lawyer and court officials, he rails at them. He ironically gains strength from his growing acceptance that he will lose his case and suffer the ultimate punishment.

Kafka translator Pavel Eisner believed that K.’s unnamed guilt in the novel is the guilt of being Jewish in a Christian world. Although Kafka was a Jew, he grew up in a Christian society, and the world of “The Trial” can be seen as having a very Christian taint. K. is guilty, or is at least accused, of some unintentional crime—some secular variant of original sin. Welles, wittingly or unwittingly, brings those Christian themes to the forefront. The Advocate (played here by Welles himself) is (reputedly) able to intercede with the Higher Courts, who are inaccessible to the accused directly—in other words, he is a Christlike figure, an intermediary between man and the ultimate authority. But the Advocate demands that his clients place their unquestioned faith in him, even paraphrasing the Second Commandment: “Who is your Advocate? And who besides me?” When K. sees the Advocate lord himself over a client, informing him that he is a sinful wretch but that he nonetheless will defend him, Josef refuses to abase himself. He rejects help from the Advocate as beneath his dignity, even though it means he will likely lose his case (the Advocate gives him fair warning that “to be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free”). It is only in this defiance that K. is able to find any shred of redemption; he is not, however, able to avoid his fate.

“The Trial,” which is about a pervasive feeling rather than an intricate plot, translates surprisingly well to film. Some critics complained Welles’ script for The Trial was too confusing, which is like complaining that ‘s adaptation of The Shining was too scary. A few others argued that Welles’ symbolism was heavy-handed, an accusation mainly based on his unfortunate choice to end the movie on a freeze frame of a mushroom cloud (an off-topic, out-of-the-blue contemporary commentary that sounds one of the picture’s few sour notes). Welles, on the other hand, argued that this film is to be experienced more than interpreted. “You can make your own symbols, if you want to,” he said, “but there isn’t a single symbol in it.”

That statement is, of course, unbelievable: even if Welles himself consciously added no symbols, all the symbolism inherent in Kafka’s original work would be carried over. I believe what Welles was aiming at with the “no symbolism” statement is that the images and symbols in The Trial are malleable and primordial, not tied down to one single “correct” allegorical interpretation (i.e, the court doesn’t represent the Nazi party, the explosion at the end isn’t the Bomb). In the novel, Josef K. and a priest discuss the meaning of “Before the Law,” the parable that opens Welles’ movie. This analysis is several times as long as the story itself. Yet, the priest, who dissects the story authoritatively, never hazards an opinion about its ultimate meaning. K. concludes that he can’t understand the fable and is uncomfortable even thinking about it. I believe the key to understanding the parable, and to a large extent “The Trial,” is hidden in the middle of the priest’s discourse: “…the free man is superior to the man who has to serve another. Now, the man [who chooses to wait by the door for his entire life] really is free, he can go wherever he wants, the only thing forbidden to him is entry into the law…” Josef K. may have to accept the decision of the court, but he does not have to serve the Law and make himself a slave; he does not have to file papers, hire counsel or attend interrogations, and in fact no one in the film ever tries to force him to. They merely expect him to do what is expected of him; at the end of the movie, they even try to make him his own executioner, rather than plunging the knife in him themselves. Firing the Advocate, rejecting the Process, is K.’s great act of defiance, one that is much more profound than his grand speech denouncing his accusers—which after all was delivered in the courtroom, from within the system. But, of course, this is only one interpretation, and there are many more paths to follow in the movie’s labyrinth.


“…despite some impressive staging and some startling pictorial effects… [Welles] has not reduced the weird proceedings to a clear dramatic line or arrived at an intellectual conclusion that is readily understood.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Welles adroitly captures the experience of an unsettling and slightly hysterical dream.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader (re-release screening)

“…[After a second viewing] I was still baffled and bothered by what I perceived as the weirdness of the production… It is a noisy, often wacky and utterly strange work. However, I can never get emotionally or intellectually hooked into its freneticism. After a while, the surplus of titled angles and deep shadows becomes tiresome and predictable. Kafka’s labyrinthine plotline was ruptured by Welles’ tinkering, leaving much of the story to be painfully unclear.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Trial (1962)


The Trial by Franz Kafka – The original novel at Project Guttenberg

Nightmare as Funhouse Ride: Orson Welles’s THE TRIAL – Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s informative liner notes for the Studio Canal Blu-ray release of The Trial

The Trial by Orson Welles: A Critical Analysis – A selection of slides from a talk by Caroline Klimek; although the linking analysis is missing, there are many thought-provoking images and quotes here

DVD INFO: The Trial‘s public domain status meant that there were a lot of bootleg DVDs of the movie floating around, usually taken from execrable prints. You can take your pick from among these, as they are all likely to be much the same, with only a few of exceptions. The most-praised of the DVD releases is Image Entertainment’s “Milestone Collection” edition (buy), which was made from a remastered print and includes the trailer and an alternate television opening as extras. The downside is that this edition is now out-of-print, and even used copies can be pricey. Another option is the “Citizen Welles” compilation set (buy) which also includes The Stranger (1946) and Welles’ very first movie, the Surrealist short “Hearts of Age” (1934). Unfortunately, although this set is packed with extras and claims to be restored, the video quality is hardly better than the public domain releases. A third, and best, option is the Blu-ray release from Studio Canal (buy), which unfortunately is only available in Region B (Europe) and won’t play on most North American players. This appears to be the definitive version of The Trial. It contains a couple of supplemental documentaries, an interview with Steven Berkoff, the trailer, an extensive essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and the six-minute deleted scene Welles cut just before the film’s premier (which involved the large computer seen at K.’s office).

Video-on-demand (buy or rent) is another option for seeing the film; the video source used is likely to be from a public domain print, however.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Royce,” who noted it’s “a great weird movie which does a great job in mirroring the irrational world of a nightmare.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “143. THE TRIAL (1962)”

  1. I’m convinced that “The Trial” not only influenced “Brazil”, the film’s entirely bizarre ultra-wide angle photography basically is Gilliam’s photographic style years before Terry even joined Python.

    As for the contents of both book and film, Kafka’s early literary executor Max Brod tried to convince posterity that Kafka was a deeply religious man on a frustration spiritual journey to find God. Needless to say, Brod had little success.

    I think Kafka’s writings stem from two aspects. One being his hailing from a tradition of odd and weird Bohemian fairy and folk tales. The other is that he was Jewish in a fiercely anti-Semitic, morbidously moribund, and heavily bureucracized Austria-Hungary, where one’s status, uniform, and social position meant everything to an absurd degree, like in a funny/phoney operetta or musical. In Austria-Hungary, what everyone sought was a “schöne Leich'” (a “pretty corpse”), by which they meant that they wanted to attain a lot of medals to show at their funeral.

    Emperor Francis-Joseph of Austria-Hungary was known for his stoic amor fati (there were a number of hard blows in his life, including the early death of his wife, the “mental illness” of transvestism of his first heir to the throne, the suicide of his second, most promising heir Rudolph, and finally the assassination of his third heir Franz-Ferdinand resulting in WWI) as well as his enormous devotion to duty and decency even if he didn’t know why he was doing a thing, and his subjects were a lot like that. One famous quote of his was, “If we’re really going to Hell, we should do so decently”, by which he was describing the mess his entire labyrinthine and highy bureaucrazized multi-national state was in, the nationalistic tensions that tore it apart, as well as the impending war.

    It was all just so phoney and absurd, as WWI showed in which his empire perished. It’s also why it was said that the foul, morbidly decadent stenches of the Fin de Siecle era and Art Noveau (both highly ambivalent phenomena, especially in their relation to progress, civilization, and decadence) couldn’t be smelled any better than in Vienna, the moribund empire’s capital, during the years leading up to the war.

    So while I doubt that Jewish Kafka’s ordeal was particularly due to Christian theology but rather how any non-Jews were after him (a kind of ubiquitious persecution that breeds guilt, even if you haven’t done anything), I think that’s where his prediliction for paranoia and the darkly absurd stemmed from, and I guess ostracized Hollywood outcast Orson Welles had a number of reasons to identify with those two elements. I agree with Welles in that it’s also my favorite of his movies.

  2. This film is right at the pinnacle of what is possible with celluloid. It’s a fairly authentic account of the novel, so, again, not weird to me. Perkins is perfect and Welles is at the top of his (increasingly rotund) form. One of the few black comedies that works.

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