*. Franz Kafka is usually held, I think fairly, as being one of the great mythographers and prophets of the twentieth century. His work is also characterized most often as having the quality of a nightmare vision of bureaucratic hell. This too strikes me as fair.
*. I don’t mean to be perverse then when I say that I also find his novels strangely comforting. There’s something not modern but old-fashioned in his vision of a world dominated by creaky and opaque hierachies, with influence channeled through the mysterious influence of solicitous women. Of course no one would want to actually be Joseph K., but the lawyer Huld (named Hastler here) seems to lead quite the life, lying in bed all day while being tended to by Romy Schneider. It’s not necessarily a bad world, at least if you can find your place in it.
*. I think something of this ambiguity can be seen in the decor and setting of this version of The Trial. One expects to see the curtains rise on an envrionment not unlike the post-WW2 streets of Vienna in The Third Man but we instead find ourselves in a thoroughly modern apartment block, and then a giant open-concept office space filled with clacking typewriters that makes one think Terry Gilliam must have been taking notes for Brazil.
*. Later, however, we will step back into the past, with many of the interiors being shot in the vast and cluttered spaces of the Gare d’Orsay. These locations do have a bombed-out and antique feel to them and they help give the sense of a world so old it’s falling apart.
*. The Trial is a work that has always invited a wide variety of interpretations. Combined with Welles’s belief that film should never be an illustration of a book but an original creation, and that a director has not only the right but the obligation to turn a literary source into something different from what the author intended, we should expect something a bit different from a literal adaptation. And this is what we get.
*. What are the essential elements of Welles’s version? I’ll just mention a few of what I think are the most characteristic.
*. In the first place, it’s a comic Trial. Welles told Anthony Perkins that black comedy was what he was going for and I think that’s clearly what he achieved in several places. Just look at Welles’s own first appearance with a wet towel over his face. Nor is this a particularly revisionist reading of the text, since apparently Kafka himself thought The Trial to be very funny and would laugh out loud while reading the manuscript to friends (it was only published after his death).
*. Does the lightheartedness go too far? I think it does in one instance. What I’m referring to is the ending, which has a laughing and defiant K. blown up with a stick of dynamite instead of being ritually sacrificed with a knife.
*. Now Welles had a serious reason for doing this. He thought it a response to the Holocaust, in that he didn’t want to show K. as masochistically submitting to his death. He thought that that sort of thing “stank of the old Prague ghetto” and wanted instead to show K. making a final defiant gesture, even if it was fruitless. That’s fair enough, but the explosion at the end here — which some have seen as invoking the spectre of nuclear war, though this was not intended — strikes me as being light and cartoonish. One almost expects to see Perkins crawling out of the hole with his face blackened and clothes in tatters, still laughing away.
*. The second interpretive angle taken is to present K. as a social climber. Welles saw him as a man on the rise, a pusher trying to make it in the bureaucracy rather than someone fighting against it. Explaining this point of view to some film students, he said K. was not in conflict with society but society was in conflict with him.
*. I like this point of view and think it’s successfully put forward. (I also think it’s something there in the text as well.) One of the interesting ways Welles shows it is by making elevation into a visual motif. Authority is always presented as being on high. K.’s “office” in the typewriter hall, for example, is just a raised platform at one end. The judge in the courtroom/hall is also on an elevated stage, and K. is shown having difficulty climbing onto it. The preacher’s pulpit forces K. to look up at him and even Hastler’s bed is on a kind of dais. These are the commanding heights that K. wants to climb. But instead he descends into an open pit.
*. Finally, there is a sexual angle given to the proceedings. Some of this is in Kafka, like the way K. attempts to recruit women to help him in his cause. But there’s also the fact that Welles knew Perkins was homosexual and used that as a way of suggesting another layer of anxiety — the fear of exposure.
*. As a result, the film becomes what David Thomson calls “a homosexual horror story,” with a gay man afraid of being exposed finding himself at the mercy of a gang of “ravenous women.” Well, when you’re paranoid then the whole world is a threat, and I think all of this works really well. And I never really understood Joseph K.’s relation to women in the novel anyway.
*. A big scene (almost nine minutes) involving the computer was cut at the last minute. This would, according to Welles, have said something about man’s slavish relationship to something that was only a tool, a rather prophetic statement in 1962. This is another interpolation that was, of course, not in the book but which still would have fit well with it.
*. I have to say I’m not that happy with Welles’s own appearance as Hastler. Especially his strangely boyish haircut. The lawyer in the novel is an old man and unwell. Here he just seems odd. Welles had originally wanted Jackie Gleason (more comedy) but Gleason turned him down. I think with Welles in the part it’s definitely something different, but I still think it’s a case of miscasting.
*. All the usual comments one has to make about the bravura aspects of a Welles film — the use of space, the lighting, the editing, the long takes — apply here. It’s a visual treat from beginning to end. And the script is one of the most original things about it, full of well-timed diversions and clever bits of Pinteresque dark humour. I don’t think it adds up to one of Welles’s greatest films, but that’s a tough hill to climb. It’s still a truly great movie, and a landmark work of art in its own right.