The Trial Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Warners R2 release of Orson Welles’ The Trial, a fascinating failure which is full of interesting things. The disc offers a pretty good transfer but nothing else.

Some admirers of Orson Welles have claimed that his adaptation of Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial is one of his best films. Indeed, the estimable David Thomson in his biography of Welles, places it above Chimes At Midnight, Touch of Evil and, most bafflingly, way above The Lady From Shanghai; he sees it as one of Welles’ masterpieces. I wish that he was right. Indeed, there are moments of The Trial where form and content come together with a kind of mysteriously beautiful synchronicity, where Welles really is making the great film that critics like Thomson claim to see. But, taking the film as a whole, it’s a failure; plodding, lacking focus and fatally obvious in its cinematic tricks. Having said this – and this is a big conditional – I can’t think of a single film by Welles which, regardless of its merits, isn’t at the very least an interesting failure. Most of his flawed films are better than fully achieved films by lesser directors. Following this trend, The Trial is frustrating, unengaging and fractured but it’s also intriguing and full of fascinating things.

The following review contains spoilers for the novel and film of The Trial. Please skip down to my comments on the disc if you do not wish to have these plot elements revealed.

Now that Kafka has become a trademark for the concept of the individual versus bureaucratic authority, largely through his reputation among people who have never read his works, it’s difficult to come to “The Trial” without preconceptions. The story is quite simple. On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, a clerk named Joseph K wakes up to find two men in his room. They accuse him of a crime and arrest him but refuse to inform him of the exact nature of the charge against him. Joseph K spends the next year trying to find out what he’s accused of, going to various authorities but always coming away with more questions than answers. He gradually becomes lost in a maze of bureaucracy and not even his lawyer, a family friend, is able to help. Eventually, he is taken to a pit and, without protesting, is stabbed and left to die.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out a couple of things. Firstly, the image of a small individual painted against vast, overbearing rooms is gleaned more from cinema than from Kafka’s book. Kafka writes about small, cramped and claustrophobic rooms; the image of the vast office, for example, is taken largely from Welles’ film and was later expanded upon in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Kafka is not merely a solemn or gloomy writer. He’s totally serious about his themes but he’s also often very funny, albeit in an absurd manner. The internally consistent but existentially insane story of Joseph K’s attempts to find out just what he’s accused of is full of deadpan comedy and a crazy logic which never doubts for one moment that Joseph K’s fate is inescapable. Part of the – jet black – comedy comes from Joseph knowing this himself but continuing on a quest that he already knows is futile.

Welles is true to the original in certain respects. Broadly speaking, he follows Kafka’s plot until the final scene when there is considerably more protestation from Joseph. Many of the characters – the Advocate (Welles), his pathetic client Bloch (Tamiroff), the mysterious agents of the state who come to arrest Joseph – are reasonably faithful to the book. But Welles has a view of Joseph K which is considerably different to the original character. Kafka’s view of Joseph is ambivalent, stressing an ambiguity about whether or not the man is guilty of anything more than being the willing servant of a mediocre state. Welles’ Joseph, as portrayed by Anthony Perkins, is a walking set of neuroses and is clearly guilty of something; he exudes guilt like sweat. Perkins presumably did what his director asked of him but he’s not right for Kafka’s character. He isn’t remotely cryptic or unknowable; he keeps his emotions right upfront, on the surface.

However, it soon becomes clear that Welles isn’t particularly interested in Kafka. He’s far more concerned with Joseph K’s hopeless attempts to connect with the world around him and particularly in his relations with women. Perkins’ own repressed homosexuality makes the encounters between Joseph and a series of rapaciously nymphomaniacal women, all of whom seem turned on by his guilt, funny yet rather cruel. On this level of black comedy, the film does, to some extent, work. Also successful, strictly in terms of Welles’ view of the material, is the visual aspect of the film. Once Welles had decided to universalise Kafka’s novel, the huge architectural backdrops might well have chosen themselves and it has to be said that the use of them is often inspired. The huge, abandoned Gare D’Orsay in Paris is absolutely perfect for the film; it has a sad, lost melancholy about it, as if the ‘vast and trunkless legs of stone’ of Ozymandias were somewhere nearby. The vast sets are also impressive, especially the hugely influential office setting; miles of desks and no personality. Welles’ use of ceilings creates a sense of confinement within an eternity of space; an interesting paradox which is never quite explored in the narrative as it could have been. The problem is that the suggestive and often emotionally affecting settings clash with Perkins’ twitchy, obnoxious performance. Since we never care about him, we don’t care about his situation and when he shouts defiance at his tormentors, it comes across as a queenish hissy fit. It’s also the case that Welles’ choice of vast, operatic locations and sets means that the quiet whispers on which Kafka bases much of the menace in his novel are totally lost.

There are, however, wonderful moments. The opening pin-screen animation, designed by the great Alexeieff, is so marvellously Kafkaesque that it raises hopes which the film later dashes, and Welles’ intonation of the story of the man before the door of the Law is rich and ironic. Some of the performances are spot-on; Jeanne Moreau’s Miss Burstner, undressing nonchalantly while Joseph keeps apologising for being there; Akim Tamiroff’s pathetic, spiteful Bloch, never quite able to get one over on the men to whom he is bound; Romy Schneider’s bizarrely erotic, web-handed Leni; and most of all, Welles himself as the Advocate. It’s so typical of Welles that he saves the best scene in the book for himself, stealing it from the Priest, and it’s perhaps equally typical that he brings it off with such class. He makes you think of other Welles roles of course; his windy Clarence Darrow in Compulsion and his menacing, slug-like Cardinal Wolsey in A Man For All Seasons. But there’s a calm air of authority about Welles as an actor that makes his final statement – “And now, I’m going to close it” – uniquely chilling. Virtually every scene has something worth looking at, whether it’s the arrangement of shadows, the placing of the actors or the way the camera looks up to the action or down on it from above.

Welles claimed that this was his best film on a number of occasions and once offered an insight into why it was such a personal project for him – “What made it possible for me to make the picture is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life. I’m in prison and I don’t know why. I’m going to be tried and I don’t know why. It’s very personal for me” (quoted in “Rosebud” by David Thomson). This sounds to me like justification after the fact but if its true then it explains the way he shaped the material. It’s also true that Welles’ career after 1942 must have seemed like some nightmare out of Kafka – hounded by studio executives who wouldn’t let him finish his films, unable to shoot a film without moving across four continents, piecing together scraps of celluloid to make things he hoped in vain would restore his broken reputation, demeaning himself in films like Prince of Foxes in order to make a living.

Yet, somehow, the film lacks focus, possibly because of Welles’ typically chaotic shooting methods and somewhat scrappy editing. It proceeds in fits and starts, rarely finding the dramatic energy to create a head of steam. There’s barely any suspense and the mixture of hopelessly poignant settings and a hysterical central performance doesn’t gel. The novel makes you think that you’re entering a maze from which there is only one final way out. The film is more like a badly laid-out theme park where there are lots of different attractions but no central point. Yet, some of the attractions are rather wonderful in themselves and they provide just about enough interest to make the film worth a look.

The Disc

There’s very little to say about this disc, a barebones release from Warners. It’s another one of their titles licensed from Canal Plus and, like many of the others, it’s presented without much care. At least on this occasion we have been given a reasonably good transfer.

The film is transferred in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a bad transfer at all. The monochrome image is pleasingly sharp without being over-enhanced. The image is slightly grainy but this seems to be intentional. Some print damage is evident but this is not distracting. There are some slight problems with blocky artefacting in the blacks but this is only sporadic. Shadow detail is exceptionally good. All in all, this is pleasing.

The only soundtrack option is the original English mono recording. This varies from good to mediocre. Some scenes are crackly and others feature a good deal of hiss. Others are perfectly clean.

There are no extras at all, nor any subtitling. There are 20 chapter stops.

As a huge admirer of Orson Welles as a director and as an actor, I found The Trial somewhat disappointing. It does however have numerous points of interest and is well worth a look. Fans of the film will be reasonably pleased with the transfer but the lack of any extra features or subtitles is regrettable.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jun 29, 2004

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
The Trial Review | The Digital Fix