Are You Defending Your Life?


It’s hardly a promising artistic coupling: the terse, enigmatic Franz Kafka and the baroque, shamelessly bombastic Orson Welles. Approached in the early ’60s by the ambitious producer Alexander Salkind and his father, Michael, with a list of literary classics ripe for adaptation, Welles chose The Trial. The film was conceived as a big-budget international picture, most of it to be shot in Yugoslavia on specially constructed sets. But the Salkinds proved less than solvent, and the production was forced to flee Yugoslavia with only the exteriors in the can. Back in Paris, then his home base, Welles exercised his genius for improvisation and chose as his main interior location the abandoned railroad station, the Gare d’Orsay (since turned into one of the world’s most ravishing museums).

Despite this radical change of plan, Welles claimed (in Peter Bogdanovich’s interview collection This Is Orson Welles) that The Trial, unlike most of his other films, had been made almost entirely without interference. Benign neglect is the more likely attitude of the producers, since a few years after the film was released, the original materials were misplaced, seemingly forever. For the past 30 years, the available prints were dupes of butchered TV versions. But in 1995, the team that was restoring Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened some unlabeled film cans and found the entire negative of The Trial. Hence, the release of a luminous black-and-white, 35mm, wide-screen print.

Anthony Perkins plays Joseph K, an ambitious young office worker who wakes one morning to discover that he is under arrest. K will spend the rest of his short life lost in the labyrinth of the law, trying to find out what he has been accused of and what he needs to do to prove his innocence—an innocence that he, as much as his accusers, seems to doubt.

As in his Shakespeare films, Welles spells out his strategy in the opening minutes. In an ominous voice-over, he tells us that Kafka’s novel has “the logic of a dream—a nightmare.” It’s the nightmare aspect of the novel that Welles captures with great ingenuity. He turns the vast, crumbling lobbies, arcades, and tunnels of the Gare d’Orsay into a dreamscape, constructed according to Freud’s definition of the primary processes of the unconscious: condensation and displacement. One minute the law court seems adjacent to K’s office; the next it opens into the apartment of K’s lawyer. K is forever opening doors and finding himself where he never expected to be: a corridor jammed with abject petitioners, a closet hidden away in his own office where the accused are tortured. Framed almost entirely from an extremely low angle, the film plays with the danger inherent in even the most familiar spaces. K’s paranoia has a kinetic dimension. Perpetually disoriented, he oscillates between claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The cluttered interiors and vast, bombed-out exteriors both have the potential to bury him alive.

Welles pumps up the sexual component in K’s guilt by surrounding him with three of the most overtly erotic of ’60s actresses: Jeanne Moreau, as Miss Burstner, the exhausted prostitute who lives next door; Elsa Martinelli as a scrubwoman in the law courts; and Romy Schneider as the nurse and mistress of K’s lawyer (played by Welles), who seduces K with her “physical defect”—gossamer webs between her fingers.

In its mapping of castration anxiety and sexual guilt, the film is brilliantly bleak and occasionally hilarious. But Welles is less successful handling the prophetic political and social allegory embedded in the novel. The skeletal, half-naked accused who clutch their shoes to their chests and the thuggish apparatchiks in their baggy gray suits who come to arrest K are heavy-handed symbols for the horrors of the fascist and totalitarian states. Welles is overwhelmed by his best ambitions. Nevertheless, The Trial is splendid to look at and teeming with ideas about the individual, society, and of course, film itself.