The fable-like novels and surreal short stories of Franz Kafka seem to offer endless opportunity for cinematic re-interpretation and adaptation: these allegorical tales, published in the first half of the twentieth century and largely founded in their author’s own personal neuroses, uncannily managed to hint at the horrors of the age to come with their imagining of irrational labyrinthine nests of nightmare bureaucracy conspiring against hapless individuals. Yet there have been surprisingly few screen adaptations of Kafka’s numerous works -- even the obvious ones such as “Metamorphosis”. Compare this situation with Edgar Allen Poe or H.P Lovecraft, for example: few of the many film versions based on their tales ever had much in common with the original source text, but these names are considered bankable enough to get them attached to a great many dubious projects, all too eager to cash-in on the association. One of the few screen versions of what is probably Franz Kafka’s most well-known works, “The Trial”, now gets a magnificent Blu-ray release in the UK: Orson Welles’ 1962 version, made with a post-”Psycho” Anthony Perkins in the role of Kafka’s accused alter ego Josef K, was yet another instance of the legendary director, in the latter half of his filmmaking career, being forced to chase dwindling funds half way around Europe in order to get it finished. In this case, Welles’ funding troubles contribute much to the film’s distinctive mise-en-scène, with the director shooting in a variety of baroque locations in Yugoslavia and Paris and in studios in Italy, combining them to create one of the most threatening, uncanny and dreamlike landscapes outside of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” (I’d be very surprised if the young Lynch hadn’t seen and been inspired by certain aspects of Welles’ film). Kafka’s novel doesn’t have anything in the way of conventional narrative development, proceeding as a series of vignettes in which the ‘hero’ is first informed of his arrest by mysterious characters who turn up in his room one night at the start of the book, and then spends the rest of its pages attempting to negotiate the various offices of an endless, unfathomable and irrational legal process, which unfolds in secret in dusty backrooms and attics. It’s a dream-like unresolved narrative which hints at social ostracization, religious disquiet and personal inadequacy.
Welles chose to leave the central structure of the original novel intact, and it is probably this decision which contributed the most to the film being critically poorly received in some quarters. Put simply, Welles’ “The Trial” ignores all obvious rules of narrative development: story-wise it simply doesn’t go anywhere for two hours. Perkins wanders from encounter to lengthy encounter with a succession of strange characters, many of whom appear at first to offer a way out of his predicament, only for them to prove unable to supply anything other than a further extension of his bizarre torment. But then, that was the point of the novel in the first place, so it seems rather unfair to dismiss the film as a failure on that account.
Welles’ solution to the filmmakers’ predicament imposed by the strictly methodical nature of the source text, is to impose his own authorial personality onto Kafka’s vision as visibly and relentlessly as possible in every frame of the film. This makes itself felt at the most obvious level in the fact that Welles supplies lengthy spoken-word prologues and epilogue voice-overs, and also appears in one of the movie’s most notable roles playing the bedridden, cigar-smoking Advocate who is engaged by Josef K’s uncle to handle his case, as well as the fact that ten other characters were also voiced by Welles in order to overcome the limitations placed on the production by its mixed international cast (the whole film is post-dubbed in every language, often not too expertly).
But Welles also imposes his personality on every other area of the film’s aesthetic; the black and white cinematography of Edmond Richard laces it with more of that looming, wide angle lens photography which stood out so in “Touch of Evil”, but here the short focal lengths used throughout lend the film a bizarre, off-kilter quality for the entire duration of its two hour running time. This, combined with the unusual low ceilinged sets Welles had made at the Italian studios where the interiors of Josef K’s apartment and those of his neighbours were shot, as well as features such as the inclusion of sets with their doorways -- or even the furnishings of the rooms themselves -- constructed to varying mismatched irrational sizes, means that it is often hard to tell for sure even simple things such as how far away objects and people actually are from each-other in the frame (there is one moment when a character who is sat at a small desk at the end of the Advocate’s rooms looks like a small child in adult’s clothes). The photography is doused in expressionistic technique: looming shadows dominate most scenes, unsettling low-angle camera positionings and bizarre perspectives encourage a threatening atmosphere at all times, even when the on-screen events seem absurd or comic. The entire film thus looks completely alien in an upsetting way -- lending it truly the look of a dream rendered for the screen.
Welles adds to this overriding sense of unreality with the use of carefully chosen locations which encourage just enough of a sense of the familiar to make us notice the radically strange and unlocatable nature of the landscape these odd events appear to be taking place within. The novel and Welles’ film both deliver radically surreal, out-of-place elements, although Welles uses his own imagination rather than relying on the novel in order to expand on the sense of displacement he’s already created with the peculiar look of the movie: Josef K is arrested by characters who seem like shadowy villains from a pulp fiction crime thriller and who appear, along with fellow clerks from his office, in his low ceilinged bedroom and rifle through the belongings of the woman in the flat opposite; when these noir-ish characters are punished later because of his complaint against them, their beating takes place in the cramped stationary cupboard in Josef K’s own place of work, which is itself a vast concrete warehouse-sized open plan floor space containing endless rows of desks under vast, impersonal files of strip lighting. The law courts are situated in a massive baroquely décored hall, its court officials situated on top of a flimsy wooden rostrum that the defendant has to clamber across in order to be able to reach them. Josef K’s oppressive box-like flat meanwhile, looks like it is part of a towering, soviet-era concrete modernist block set in a gloomy prospect of wintery wasteland, while the Advocate’s offices are a shadow-strewn, candle-lit gothic attic space dressed in ornate furnishings. When Josef K goes to meet a portrait artist called Titorelli (William Chappell) who is famous for his paintings of all the biggest court judges, and whom Josef K consequently believes might be able to put in a good word for him in relation to his case, he finds the artist’s studio at the top of a metal spiral staircase surrounded by screaming female children (his fans!) and that it consists merely of flimsy wooden slats through which the youngsters peer at him eagerly. This strange geography and surreal landscape of mismatched architecture informs a stylised aesthetic in which objects and places seem as alienated and disconnected from each other as the people who surround or occupy them.
The tone of the film suggests Welles was drawing on other sources besides Kafka, although these were sources which had clearly been influenced by the author’s perennial themes. The Théâtre de l'Absurde of Samuel Beckett or recent work by Harold Pinter such as “The Birthday Party” or “The Caretaker” appears to inform the screenplay’s spiralling loops of nonsense dialogue which are evident particularly in the opening scene, when Josef K is being ‘interrogated’ by the fedora-sporting heavies come to arrest him and the protagonist’s nervous Freudian slips are noted down as evidence against him, and also in Josef K’s relationship with secondary characters like the cowering defendant Bloch (Akim Tamiroff) who lives in the maid’s room at his Advocate’s house, waiting for a verdict that never comes. This leads perhaps to the film’s most noticeable change in approach in comparison to the novel: not only are all the characters Josef K meets during the narrative odd, unpredictable and unnatural in their manner, but Josef K himself, as portrayed by Anthony Perkins, is just as bizarre, and a great deal harder to identify with than his correlative version in Kafka's writing. Welles’ interpretation takes advantage of Perkins’ twitchy, nervous persona to convey an interpretation of the character which highlights his sense of guilt and repression, particularly in relation to his interactions with women. Welles casts a selection of the most delectable European actresses of ‘60s cinema in the film, who proceed to either reject Perkins’ awkward, faltering advances, as in the case of Jeanne Moreau, who plays the nightclub stripper Miss Burstner; or else throw themselves at him with nympho-like abandon, as do Romy Schneider as web-fingered advocates’ assistant Leni (who only fancies accused men) and Elsa Martinelli as the court secretary Hilda -- who attempts to seduce the stuttering protagonist amid the law books of the Halls of Court, which turn out to be stuffed with pornographic pictures anyway! This emphasis on sexual unease and guilt is another addition to the text that was not overtly obvious in the novel, although the most clear-cut changes involve the addition of scenes that play out next to a vast ‘60s-style super-computer complex which predicts the fates of the accused (Josef K is judged by the chattering machine to be a likely suicide) and the atomic mushroom cloud explosion at the conclusion of the film.
“The Trial” is a visually baroque, extravagantly adorned cocktail of expressionistic nightmares and dark unease which requires at least two viewings to glean the most from what is an extremely wordy screenplay, despite the striking nature of its unsettling visual style. It’s well worth sticking with though, and is undoubtedly one of the most unusual and overlooked entries in the Orson Welles filmography. The film gets a stunning treatment with this HD transfer, which really gives the work a whole new lease of life in its rendering of detail and shadow contrast. The English mono audio track has depth and clarity and there are also German and French audio options. The disc comes with an excellent selection of contemporary and vintage documentaries on the making of the film and on Welles’ career. “Welles, Kafka and the Trial” is a fantastic 33 minute French-made ‘making of’ which looks at the film with the help of assistant director Sophie Becker, cinematographer Edmond Richard and a host of French film critics. “Orson Welles Architect of Light” is an extended 24 minute interview with Edmond Richard in which he explains in detail how the very distinctive look of the film was achieved both with lighting and camera effects, and perspective tricks built into the construction of the sets. “Tempo Profile: Orson Welles” is a British documentary interview for ABC, which looks like it was made around 1965. It features Welles in conversation about his difficulties in getting projects off the ground during this period, and his longing to be able to return to Hollywood to make his films. An 11 minute “interview with Steven Berkoff” features the actor and stage director (who has directed and starred in stage adaptations of both “The Trial” and “Metamorphosis”) talking about Franz Kafka’s life and the inspirations for his work, as well as Welles’ specific interpretation of it. Berkoff is always a good bet for an acid-tongued quote and he delivers a corker of one here when discussing the lack of success of the film being down to Welles being ahead of his time: ‘some directors have a talent for putting their finger right on the pulse of mediocrity … Welles wasn’t one of them’. There’s also a deleted scene, cut by Welles before the film’s release but which no longer has any surviving audio. It appears here with English subtitles. Lastly, a theatrical trailer for the film is included.
The excellent HD quality and a respectable effort by Studio Canal in the extras department help to make this a must-have release for Welles aficionados.
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