Most of us have a proverbial ‘pile of shame,’ a list of pictures that we promise we’ll get around to watching but never do. It’s a real snub—if the movie is so important we shouldn’t let it elude us so—but there are pictures that are snubbed in an even more egregious manner. These are movies that should be on our get-to list but that aren’t because we don’t even know about them. You’ve almost certainly heard of Citizen Kane, and you’ve probably heard of Orson Welles. If you’ve heard of the writer Franz Kafka it stands to reason that you’ve heard of Kafka’s The Trial, one of his more popular works. But if you’re like me before two months ago, you hadn’t heard of Welles’ film adaptation of The Trial. Which is, I think, a real shame, because it seems to me that The Trial might be one of the best movies ever made.
The film, which Welles said was “inspired” by the book, relates the story of Josef K (played by Anthony Perkins, best known as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), who wakes up one morning to find two police detectives in his apartment. They tell him that he is under arrest, but they refuse to divulge the crime he is charged with. He is allowed to go about his day as normal: he goes to work, where his young cousin shows up announced, and later he goes to the opera, but is removed during the performance and called to appear in court. From there, the film increasingly grows more opaque. K has no lawyer but instead hires an ‘advocate’ (Orson Welles) who appears to be doing nothing for him; a procession of women throw themselves at K as if he was their long lost love; K seeks the counsel of an artist but finds that the artist is under siege from little children that demand he paint portraits of him; and eventually, K is found guilty and is taken to a quarry where he is executed.
In a piece of narration that serves as a prologue to the film, Welles compares the story of The Trial to a nightmare—and that is, indeed, the easiest way to interpret what we see. In what other reality can one be accused of nothing but still be arrested? While he maintains he is not guilty, the protagonist doesn’t seem to have any problem with the fact he’s been arraigned for committing an unspecified crime. If we take the film to be a dream, we can pull out a Freudian checklist and start matching symbols against Josef K. In this nightmare we see reflected feelings of guilt (over what we are not sure), feelings of social anxiety, inadequacy (especially with regards to women), and plain general confusion.
The fact that The Trial may be one long dream sequence is superficial. Of course it is—if not, it’s simply an incredibly fantastical film that may as well be a dream—but there are much more interesting things here than the simple events that take place. Perhaps the most important theme in The Trial is the feeling of guilt. K maintains his innocence in discussions with others, but internally he feels guilty, and Welles does a great job of communicating this inexplicitly. There is, for instance, a very jarring sequence where K’s young cousin—she’s about thirteen—turns up at his work, and K’s employer immediately leaps to the conclusion that K is sleeping with her. K hurriedly denies the charges of incest and sexual abuse, but that in itself doesn’t matter—the employer is simply reflecting the uneasiness K has within himself, whether it be a general anxiety about being judged by others, or guilt over having illicit sexual fantasies.
I’m partial to the idea that The Trial is an examination of thought crimes—more specifically, an examination of the guilt K feels about the thoughts inside his own head (and by extension the guilt we feel about thoughts that we may have). Welles plays up the sexual angle above all else, and a smaller part of that may be K’s general struggle to create and/or maintain a friendship or a relationship with the people around him. There are hundreds of employees in his workplace but he talks to none of them, and none of them even acknowledge that he exists. At the courthouse, the packed gallery and the bench have already decided against K, and they actively jeer and mock him. The bizarre sexual overture chases him wherever he goes. The counsel he ultimately seeks, a bug-eyed artist, is essentially being pawed at by young children. So in being found guilty, perhaps K has essentially condemned himself. Perhaps it is he that decides he is dysfunctional—the prosecution and the vague accusations of wrongdoing is an admission that he is guilty of something, perhaps of the wrong kinds of thoughts, and is better off dead.
We might run around in circles chasing what we think to be the meaning of the film. But even if there wasn’t as much intrigue, The Trial would still be a masterwork, if only because of its incredible cinematography and the weird imagery Welles throws at us. It is one of the best shot films there is. Welles’ control of the camera is immaculate, and he even employs maligned techniques (like the pan) to great effect. Practically the entire picture is shot at a low angle, and long shots are rare—Welles keeps the camera at a medium or close distance to the characters—so the camera has a paranoid, searching feel to it. Whenever Welles shoots at a high angle it is only to cast judgment on his protagonist, like when K is trying to explain away a mysterious “ovular” shape on his floor. There’s also the film’s aesthetic, which is that of a “dreamscape” (Amy Taubin’s word). Landscapes are empty, and the exteriors of buildings are shot so close that we can’t see any hint of a greater environment. The interiors are confusing, and Welles throws them at us too fast for us to process. In one scene, a girl brings K to her bed, which appears to be made from hundreds of hardcover books with their binding torn off. In another scene, K meets a woman in what appears to be a room full of iron girders.
It’s bizarre and it’s confusing and it’s meant to be so, and that’s what makes it so intriguing and attractive. Welles knew it. “Say what you like,” he said to the BBC, “but The Trial is the best film I have ever made.” To say that is, of course, to eschew Citizen Kane. But, as Roger Ebert reports, by the time of The Trial Welles had grown so tired of discussing his landmark film that he was ready to move past it. He put everything he had into The Trial. To say this picture is overshadowed is an understatement. Moreover, we cannot say it is ignored because to ignore something you must know about it, and not too many people know about The Trial. That, I hope, will change with time. It must, because this is one terrific picture.
Orson Welles’ The Trial debuted on December 21, 1962 in Paris. Copyright was never filed on the film, and so it is in the public domain. The entire film is available on YouTube. Next we’ll look at Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, which is having its forty-fifth anniversary this year.