The elusive Franz Kafka. An author whose works are so surreal, so dense and – at times – incomprehensible, that the English language has adopted the word Kafkaesque purely to describe impossibly, surreally, complicated situations. A German-speaking Jew living in Prague, trained as a lawyer, and working for an insurance company, Kafka wrote numerous short stories before progressing on to full length novels. Dense, overbearing novels which would later be regarded as involving elements of existentialism, expressionism and socialism, as well as obviously having been informed by the Marxist situation of the times. Whilst possible to admire the man, it is much harder to like his works; the characters are poorly developed and almost purely functional, and the stories are complex allegories upon allegories, so symbolic and yet so obtuse that complete comprehension is perpetually elusive.
His unfinished 1914 novel, The Trial, is one of his most famous works. It is also one of his most demanding. Whilst his short stories were just as cynical and frustrating, they packed a punch through their condensed format; The Trial was arguably no more than just a short story expanded out to 300 pages – and the result was an almost insurmountably complex narrative. The point to it all appeared lost amidst a sea of surreal episodes that took us, eventually, from ‘A’ to ‘B’, doing little more than confusing us along the way.
The story involves the character of Josef K. One morning he wakes to find two police officers in his apartment. They tell him that he is under arrest. They refuse to tell him what he is being charged with, and they do not take him into custody. Over the next few days K desperately tries to find out who is after him and what for, consulting a purported advocate who is more trouble than he is worth, and getting involved with a number of strange women along the way. As his journey becomes ever more surreal, the message becomes clearer: his fate is decided, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
“But that is how the guilty speak!”
It is not all that surprising that the man who brought the enigmatic Citizen Kane to life, writer/actor/director Orson Welles, would also seek to interpret Franz Kafka’s most demanding work for the Big Screen. On his second ‘break’ from Hollywood, Welles undertook the project with his trademark zeal, taking 6 months to adapt the novel himself, restructuring and re-ordering it (arguably, since the novel was left unfinished – although an ending was written – there was no definitive order to the book in the first place) and utilising Kafka’s own story-within-a-story, Beyond the Law, as an opening coda for the film.
With the then-communist Government of Czechoslovakia still blacklisting the works of Kafka, Welles was not able to film in the author’s hometown of Prague, instead shooting in Yugoslavia and Paris, and utilising numerous non-English-speaking Hungarian locals to supplant his named cast, which included Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho’s Anthony Perkins, as well as French actors Jeanne Moreau (Jules et Jim, Nikita, Beyond the Clouds), Romy Schneider (Le Train, La Piscine, What’s New Pussycat?) and Michel Lonsdale (The Day of the Jackal, Moonraker, Ronin). He would end up dubbing not only the Hungarian supporting cast, but also some of the dialogue from his English-speaking cast although, famously, he challenged Perkins to identify which lines of his were dubbed: something which Perkins was unable to do. Welles himself would take the rather theatrical role of the would-be antagonist, the advocate who is supposed to ‘help’ the lead character of Josef K.
After filming was complete, it took him so long to edit the film that he missed a possibly entry for the 1962 Venice Film Festival, only just finishing it by the end of the year, at which stage the film was met by a mixed critical reception. Few would argue with Welles’s command of camera and lighting; his ability to set the scene and evoke a mood, but many would find that the same problems that they had with Kafka’s original prose were ever-present in the movie: namely, its dense, almost indecipherable nature.
Welles would defend his 1962 film of The Trial as being his best film ever.
Understandably, unlike Welles’s superior Citizen Kane, and his powerful A Touch of Evil, many have always struggled with his adaptation of The Trial. It is both a blessing and a curse that he is so respectful to Kafka’s original novel, that the end result suffers the same issues: arguably, if Welles was looking to create the perfect cinematic interpretation of the book, then he certainly succeeded. Relentlessly overbearing, remorselessly incomprehensible and frustratingly surreal, the end result has polarised audiences for half a Century now.
In understanding Welles’s genius behind The Trial, you have to attempt to understand the story itself, or at least its purpose. This is, in itself, really quite a challenge. Whilst Kafka was a lawyer, it is difficult to pinpoint just how much of ‘The Trial’ actually relates to the law itself. Perhaps not as much as you would expect given the title, and given his profession. Whilst, on the face of it, it appeared to be a tale about a man suffering within an impenetrable judicial system, there was far more at play in this particular story.
Just before the time of the writing of this book, Kafka had been involved in a long-standing on-again, off-again engagement to a young woman – and the very frustrations of the relationship itself could easily have formed the symbolic backdrop for The Trial. Similarly, many experts have attempted to compare the events in The Trial with Kafka’s own struggles with his social standing in life – comfortably middle-class but yearning individual isolation.
Of course it does not help that the book was never completed; that it was never definitively ordered, and that the ending which was written was one which clearly came after several more unwritten chapters. Indeed there is an argument that the ending to The Trial was just what Kafka expected from the ending to his relationship; to his life – and that he may not have actually used it had he had the opportunity to complete his work as planned, and not instead been swept up in the start of World War I with onset tuberculosis to boot. Still, having done a number of other works since, many assume this to still be the definitive ending to The Trial; it’s certainly all that we have.
Furthermore numerous experts have chosen to interpret The Trial, and the protagonist with a surname of just ‘K’, to be more conveniently autobiographically associated with Kafka’s own personal demons. Were his own goals repeatedly quashed by some inner guilty conscience? And was The Trial some kind of personal exorcising of this guilt? Perhaps he truly felt that there was no foundation for it, and thus there is similarly no (revealed) foundation for the protagonist being accused. Yet there can be no clear answers, even over a hundred years on.
Irrespective of the narrative inconsistencies, the (often semantic) arguments over interpretation, and the frustrations spawned from a clearly incomplete work, many of those who seek to understand The Trial agree that, at its simplest and most easily comprehensible levels, it is about frustration. It is about the manifest dichotomy of human existence: we live to develop within, expand and understand the infinite universe around us, and yet are limited by the very eventual death that hangs over us all. We hope to do such a great many things, and yet are abated by the time-stamp placed upon our lives. Perhaps so ironically summarised by Roy Batty’s own twisted quest for ‘more time’ in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, an adaptation of another philosophically challenging work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the reality is that humans instinctively want more time; their innate quest dictates it. Yet the frustration of life itself is that it heralds but one absolute certainty: death. No matter what you do, who you talk to, what mark you make, what a difference you make, what relationships you succeed in, what relationships you fail at – no matter what, you will die. In as far as both life and The Trial, the sentence is death, and the “why” is irrelevant.
When reading Kafka’s The Trial, and when watching Welles’s beautifully-executed rendition of the work, this is what you should be mindful of. The story, however extreme and surreal the journey is, can be summed up by a frustrated quest to evade death; to question, argue, and hopefully even defeat the inevitable.
Of course, this being a Welles film, one can’t help but be impressed by the direction, cinematography and set design. In fact, you could argue that there were very few ‘sets’, as Welles used (and was occasionally compelled to use after the production ran out of money) real locations as the settings for his scenes, including the huge abandoned Parisian railway station, Gare D’Orsay, which helped create a grand sense of scale which is – to this day – often startlingly impressive. The sheer expansive of some of the locations is unprecedented, lending itself towards the more surreal aspects of the narrative (like the ‘courtroom scene’, and the scene with all the children chasing him around the twisty tower) whilst also being, conversely, firmly placed in reality – after all, these were real locations. It’s a testament to Welles’s commitment to the project that he rendered yet another oft-revered classic through what was often something of an improvisational shoot.
Anthony Perkins made for a superb protagonist. You never quite know how you would handle the situation that he is placed in – arguably both in terms of his character, and also as an actor too – and feel for his fateful plight as he struggles with an oppressive authority that appears beyond comprehension, and is certainly beyond question. Yet, at the same time, Perkins brings a strange guilt to the part; a neuroticism that makes you question whether he did do anything wrong, and certainly makes you wonder whether he could have at least done more to protest his innocence. In one jarring scene, his young cousin comes to visit him at work and his boss immediately chastises him for having a sexual relationship with a teenage girl, yet he doesn’t really seem to do much to clear his name, instead merely being visibly affronted by the allegation. Similarly the police – who purposefully call him ‘Mr’ throughout but imbue it with a total and utter lack of respect – misinterpret him at every stage, and yet he merely gets flustered and never makes any concerted efforts to correct their thinking. It’s like a frustrating nightmare, or an on-rails videogame: he can’t change the chosen path, but nor does he particularly try to. (If you read some of the author Kafka’s numerous letters, you get a flavour for this kind of sentiment with regards to himself: he used to criticise himself for doing a menial job and then criticise himself for not doing anything to change his menial job).
The myriad players that antagonise, oppose, hinder, frustrate or merely colour his journey involve characters that one might assume are loosely founded upon people that Kafka himself may have encountered (somewhat confusingly, Kafka was apparently involved in a very loosely similar legal quandary, which may have given birth to some of the ideas), but it could be argued that several of the female players could easily have been borne from the same one person in Kafka’s life: his on-off fiancée; providing the different facets that would be brought to life by the strange and whimsical women that the character of Josef K. encounters along the way. At one point he encounters a woman who literally gets swept up and carried away on the shoulders of a brutish man, not really wanting to go, but not really doing anything about it either. It’s yet another strange, surreal moment, but it makes you wonder just how Kafka saw the women in his life, and just what parts he felt that they would play in this colourful drama.
Orson Welles himself threatens to steal the limelight as the larger-than-life (arguably, literally) advocate who further befuddles the protagonist. With all the pomp and glory of a rich, self-important royal – complete with decadent, lavish lifestyle – Welles commands your attention despite the fact that he, like everything else in the book, seldom offers any answers to the questions that the protagonist poses.
Beyond the startling black and white cinematography, the rich and engulfing shadow-work, striking and claustrophobic low-angle camera-angles, and mood lighting (check out the Third Man-esque tunnels), and the at-times frenzied soundtrack which juxtaposes jarring tones with classical overtones, perhaps the single most memorable moment actually comes in the Welles-narrated pin-animated prologue, which relates the story-within-a-story from Kafka’s own work: Before the Law. With this both Kafka and, arguably even more effectively here, Welles, managed to suitably confuse readers and viewers alike with an ostensible parable that actually merely symbolises the frustrations of the protagonist himself, and the moot point that is the human condition’s futile struggle against death. It is genius, but twisted genius nonetheless, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, only with less colour. Indeed, you could argue that The Trial was probably one of the most psychedelic-60s flicks ever made – it’s just that, without the colour, it hasn’t dated as badly as others.
The mixed critical reaction it faced – at least initially – is somewhat understandable, however. Whilst Welles’s interpretation stays faithful to the book, this ultimately appears to also be its own undoing. It remains just as difficult to swallow, understand, decipher and – perhaps most importantly – enjoy. Unless you have some semblance of prior commitment to dissecting the works of Kafka, you risk being lost in the mire of surreal events and frustrating episodes that similarly threaten to drown the protagonist himself. That you do not reach the same fate is of little consolation – without understanding a film, on any level, it is difficult to do much more than admire it. And arguably impossible to like it. So, whilst Welles’s The Trial may be his personal best work, it remains as frustrating a film as the book it was based upon – which was arguably the point, when you consider that the whole thing is essentially about being frustrated, but which offers little solace when the enjoyment in said frustration is nearly non-existent.
Nearly non-existent, however, is not the same as non-existent. Taken without too deep a look behind the surface, there are still giddy moments of surreal oddity to enjoy, and the whole claustrophobic feel to the production was certainly in-line with the post-McCarthy mid-Cold War paranoid/conspiracy society that was evolving. Between that and the sublime cinematography, it was quite rightly regarded, in some circles, as a masterpiece. Yes, there certainly was an audience that blindly, instinctively loved The Trial on release, although those with a deeper understanding – and quest to understand – the work would arguably be more rewarded by their efforts.
If you’ve never read Kafka (quite understandably, given how inaccessible his works are), and have not seen any of the numerous interpretations of his works – including several for The Trial – then this is admittedly a tough starting point. Then again, it exemplifies both Kafka’s catalogue and also the word spawned from his works – Kafkaesque. It simply doesn’t get much more Kafkaesque than The Trial. One wonders what David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) would have done with this kind of material – given his own coined word, Lynchian, which has arguably similar meanings. Yet where Lynch smothers the answers to his riddles in surreal episodes, he rarely makes them impossible to decipher. Kafka, on the other hand, sometimes feels like he wants to punish you just for trying to get to the bottom of his narratives – you become the lead character himself, asking questions which you’ll never get answers to. Which is perhaps the answer. Don’t ask.
It seems appropriate to leave you with where the movie begins, the story-within-the-story of The Trial, which was also separately published as Before the Law. It symbolises and epitomises the main narrative of both the book and the movie, both of which are just as inaccessible as the goal of the character within Before the Law itself.
A man from the country seeks ‘the law’ and wishes to gain entry to ‘the law’ through a doorway. The doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says that it is possible.
The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them “so that you do not think you have failed to do anything”.
The man does not attempt to murder or hurt the doorkeeper to gain ‘the law’, but waits at the door until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why, even though everyone seeks ‘the law’, no one else has come in all the years.
The doorkeeper answers: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
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