*** Warning ‘ere be spoilers ***
The Trial, published in 1925, is Franz Kafka’s famous classic of world literature. The two major movie adaptations are this powerful 1962 black/white one by Orson Welles, starring Anthony Perkins, and the also quite excellent 1993 colour version directed by David Hugh Jones and starring Kyle MacLachlan (probably because he resembles Anthony Perkins quite a bit in this kind of environment). Both movies are European productions, and well worth seeking out if you enjoy cinematic fine art.
In Orson Welles’ adaptation, which remains quite close to the original book, Josef K. is a bank clerk who is one day accosted in his boarding house by policemen who inform him that he is under arrest. He complains loudly, not acknowledging that he is guilty of anything, but they refuse to tell him what he is charged with. Instead, they cast suspicion on him by making all sorts of incriminating hints, and trying to twist his words around to make him admit to some crime. It turns out that K. is only arrested in an abstract sense (!); he can go about his daily routine, but needs to report to a court house to be tried, and also needs to secure legal assistance for his case. He tries to do this, all the while without ever discovering what he is charged with. He meets with policemen, relatives, co-habitators, lawyers, and is shunted around in huge labyrinthine office buildings, abandoned metropolitan train stations, warehouses and cathedrals. When he does reach the court room, he still is not told what it is all about, but seizes the opportunity to make a plaintive speech. At several turns throughout the story, K. meets women who want to seduce him or elope with him, which he seems quite amenable to, but he never really commits to them, partly because the legal proceedings keep interfering. The impression conveyed to the viewer is one very reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which now seems more to me like a version of The Trial than of Orwell’s 1984), in which a little guy is caught in a huge and oppressive bureaucratic system that continuously threatens to squash him, and also ends up doing so, symbolising the ultimate destruction of the human spirit.
Ordinarily, my off-hand interpretation of the artistic substance of Franz Kafka’s surrealist book, The Trial, would be to see it as the story of the human condition distilled to its barest essential. It could conceivably be the allegorical account of man – no longer just an animal – suddenly appearing in deep pre-history with his newly evolved consciousness to a world of incomprehensible natural wonders and cruelties, and slowly, across millennia, attempting to hammer out some small understanding of his environment and himself. What’s going on? Who are we, where are we, why are we here, and what, if anything, is the cause of our situation and the purpose of our existence? Are there even answers to such questions? Can we find the tools with which to work out these answers? One of the biggest questions is: Is man good? Can we ever transcend sin and corruption, or are these things endemic to human beings? To envision this grand mysterious project of humanity’s psycho-cultural evolution as a surreal trial centered on an accused who doesn’t understand what is happening to him or why, is a stunning artistic stroke of inspiration, and it works amazingly well. By this reading, the legal system portrayed in The Trial probably also represents an oppressive government that neglects to take care of its common people; neglects to inform and educate them and to allow them the peace and quiet necessary to form meaningful relationships with each other. In this sense, The Trial is often seen as a major work of human alienation in the era of modernity, where the state apparatus is seen to have grown far beyond what human minds and feelings are comfortable with.
However, there are certainly other possible and perhaps more correct interpretations of this story than what I suggest above. For instance, if my off-hand interpretation were correct, Josef K. should not be a banker but some lowly worker, petty bourgeois or anonymous bureaucrat. In my experience, bankers and other characters involved with capitalism, from Biblical publicans to Shylocks and corrupt businessmen, tend to be the bad guys in all forms of great art and literature, including movies. Note, for instance, how Alison Lohman’s character in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell from 2009 is a banker, and in such an interpretation can therefore be seen to be the bad guy who herself is asking, through her choice of immoral occupation, to be dragged to hell! So by that logic, having a banker as a main character, The Trial could be a work more like Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, in which the victim is actually the bad guy, symbolizing conservative and ignorant people whose problems are that they are surrounded by complex forces of change and progress that they are unable to understand or adapt to, and whose incessant complaining ends up becoming very tiresome, and whose voices are eventually drowned out and dissolved by progressive social trends.
Was Kafka going for the former or the latter vision with his work? Well, maybe neither. Since Kafka was a religious man, The Trial could also be an indictment of God, complaining about the mysteries and horrors of life, meditating on sin and the inability of human beings to transcend their miserable lot in life. Having earned a law degree, Kafka is also said to have simply described his own experience with the legal system as a place of paranoia and a kind of claustrophobia made up of the various bureaucratic elements of civilization. The possible interpretations are many, and ensures the continued active life of this classic.
Orson Welles himself, it seems, certainly interprets Josef K. as a kind of every-man in this impressive movie; K. is frequently placed in situations where he seems to be behind prison bars, and the mushroom cloud at the end clearly suggest the possibility of mankind destroying itself in a nuclear war. That K. is a banker can also be seen as that he is simply a banal person; a tiny and unassuming cog in the machinery of society’s wheels, in which case the first interpretation I mentioned could still be what Welles is going for here. The movie is, in any case, highly absorbing, often amusing, at times frenetic in its pace, and with frequent shot-gun dialogue. Romy Schneider is a sizzling vision of seductive youth, and all other performances are nothing less than impeccable. A brilliant adaptation of a brilliant novel.
The new Blu-ray release has a great package of extras. There is a 30-minute feature on the film itself (in which, among other things, we hear that Welles himself dubbed most of the male actors’ voices), a 23-minute interview with the director of photography, Edmond Richard (who reveals that Welles was not good at memorizing his lines, because he found it boring, and liked to improvise instead), and an great ABC Tempo Profile containing a half-hour interview with Welles (in which he remarks that theatres are more for actors than audiences; if all the theatres were closed, almost nobody would notice).
The Blu-ray also contains a deleted scene, and one more very interesting feature: a compact 13-minute interview with actor/director Steven Berkoff (who’s apparently a Kafka expert) about his own interpretation of The Trial. Berkoff describes Kafka as a man who felt very mediocre, and who was feeling constant guilt about letting down his parents and everyone else he had relationships with, and Berkoff therefore sees The Trial as the story of a man who is guilty; not of a conventional crime, but of inaction! I love that interpretation; as many other modern works of art do, from Hamlet to Matrix, it turns the story into a raging indictment of the ordinary, unthinking person who just goes with the flow and doesn’t take action to end the oppressive societal injustices that he is constantly confronted with every day. Josef K. in The Trial then becomes the hesitating Hamlet who never really makes up his mind, and whose fault is lack of resolve. As Hamlet says towards the end of Shakespeare’s play:
“I do not know / Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.”
This reading turns the entire legal and governmental apparatus described in The Trial into those gross examples – the world’s social problems and all the artists and progressives who cry for solutions to them – which point the finger at Josef K. and blame him for not taking action to address and fight the ills and corruptions of the world, his lack of understanding being thoroughly insufficient to excuse him. By this interpretation K. is not just a poor guy caught in an inhuman machinery; he is in fact the unwitting bad guy; the guilty party; an “unhero” whose very banality and ordinariness and blind acceptance of establishment values – typical of a banker! – condemn him as an icon of conservatism and inaction; a blight which must ultimately be destroyed in order for the good aspects of society to progress and prosper. That, I believe, is what The Trial is actually about.
Orson Welles’ The Trial is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on September 10.
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Romy Schneider, Orson Welles, Elsa Martinelli and others.
Runtime: 119 min.
Country: France / Germany / Italy