The Trial


Anthony Perkins in The Trial.

Orson Welles’s 1962 film, The Trial, fairly accurately captures the claustrophobic and nightmarish feel of Kafka’s classic novel. Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins) wakes up one morning to find out that he is under arrest. The police refuse to tell him what he has been arrested for or who has accused him. K. remains free, but he is told that he must show up for his trial at some unspecified date. K. eventually turns to the advocate, Hastler (Orson Welles), for help. In the process, he becomes romantically involved with Hastler’s flirtatious nurse, Leni (Romy Schneider). K. eventually learns that if he retains Hastler as his lawyer, he will wind up as the latter’s slave. K. balks at this prospect. Not long after this, K. learns that he has been condemned to death.

Welles saw Kafka’s novel as a prophecy of fascism. The Trial depicts a world of arbitrary violence, in which an individual can be crushed for no apparent reason. There are references to the concentration camps scattered throughout the film. In one scene, for example, K. makes his way through a crowd of people who have signs around their necks with numbers on them – a clear reference to the practice of tattooing i.d. numbers on people in the camps.

Welles does depart from the novel in making K. a more aggressive character than the oddly passive person depicted in the book. He does, however, follow Kafka in having K. killed in the end. I must admit that I found this disappointing. I really wanted to see K. triumph over his oppressors. One change Welles did make was that instead of having K. stabbed to death, he is blown up by dynamite. The cloud forms the shape of a mushroom, an obvious reference to the Cold War.

The Trial has all of Welles’s visual earmarks: unusual camera angles and inventive uses of light and shadow. This film is a feast for the eyes. The bank that K. works in is an enormous hall filled with row upon row of people furiously and monotonously banging away on typewriters – a striking metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

I read that Welles originally offered the role of Hastler to Jackie Gleason, but the latter turned it down. And Gleason later chose to appear in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Amazing.

Welles sometimes said that The Trial was his best work. Citizen Kane is still my favorite, but The Trial is nonetheless a great film.

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