The Trial (1962)

I had plenty of New Years resolutions for 2011, but the only one I actually stuck with was to read more. One of the first books I read in my fidelity toward this pledge was Franz Kafka’s The Trial. A work never finished and edited together by a friend posthumously, the existential novel about an accused man in an opaque legal system was strange and procedural.

Leave it to Orson Welles to make a film of such cerebral material. Welles had complete creative control over the project and an enthusiastic lead in a fresh-out-the-Bates Anthony Perkins. Like one can expect from Mr. Welles, the film is a technical work of art, excelling in its stylistic cinematography and lighting that are perfect for the tone. However, the story is presented in a manner even more confusing than the novel. Had I not read Kafka prior to seeing this, I don’t think I would have followed everything going on.

As Josef K., Perkins is present in every scene of the film. Perkins once said that his greatest accomplishment was getting to star in an Orson Welles film. That pride might be why Perkins owns the character so well. He stammers about and talks over other people, but he’s a reasonable person who is determined to have a role in his fate. Whether he’s somewhat awkwardly trying to hit on Jeanne Moreau or crashing while grandstanding in the court, Josef K. presses on and on against an unknown charge that threatens to consume his life.

The dark, inaccessible court system is reflected in the lighting and set design. Harsh shadows make Josef’s quest for freedom seem perpetually perilous. Big, vacuous sets reflect the emptiness of the legal system, and the grandness of his workplace, where 850 secretaries type away at 850 desks, is dwarfing. Pitched against such a setting, Josef is completely disempowered.

There are a number of memorable scenes in this film, among them when Josef finds two policemen being flogged in a closet. The cuts are kicked into high gear as the single light fixture swings violently about, casting shadows across the men who are rapidly and hushedly begging for mercy. In this case, Josef is powerless and unable to stop the whippings.

There’s some great camera movements and a neat jazz piano soundtrack, but if you don’t care about such technicalities and want to watch a movie to see a really great story, you won’t enjoy this film. Instead of being a fluid narrative, The Trial reads more like a philosophical discussion of a range of topics, from legality to fate – much like its source material.

It certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you’ve got an open mind and appreciate good filmmaking – and you prime yourself with the book first – you can have a good time and appreciate Orson Welles’ The Trial.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

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