There is a built-in mistrust in watching Orson Welles’s films when inundated with his early meteoric success as an omen to being cast off by the gods of favor. It may be recalled that Orson Welles astounded audiences and critics with Citizen Kane (1941) and ventured unto the alien space for radio listeners during The War of the Worlds broadcast. His popular success shackled his subsequent creative work with incessant comparisons. Welles strove for complexity and ambiguity in what images and words meant to convey. This stance is not embraced readily and became doubly disquieting in film adaptation expectations of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The surreal literary world that Kafka sharpened is wrought with frustration. His characters cannot control their lives even as they followed the supposed rules. Predictably in Kafka works, the anxiety increases as these protagonists become ostracized. The intersection of Welles and Kakfa requires focus to determine its import.
Reviewing Welles’ The Trial (Le procès) is not a straightforward endeavor as the combined factors of Welles’s style and lack of editing, Kafka’s narrative premise, and Welles’s insertion unto the screen complicate reception. Immediately in the film, Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is accosted early morning in his private quarters by a series of police gentlemen who fail to enlighten Josef about the merits or cause of this attention. Josef acts righteous in his irritation and presume innocence for nearly a day. The ripple effect of the unknown charges infect his professional work space and inspire worry in his family members. Anger turns to anxiety as the spiral of confusion and individual powerless increases with every new wrinkle Josef learns about the justice system. His agency is overshadowed in metaphysical and realistic ways as he maneuvers around looming statutes and shadows.
Welles assembled renowned actors such as Jeanne Moreau (The 400 Blows , La Notte, Jules and Jim) and Romy Schneider (Ludwig, Sissi: The Young Empress, Boccaccio ‘70) which lends weight to the inclination that entertainment is not the primary aim of this cinematic production. Bookending the film, Welles recounts Kafka’s parable Before the Law about a beggar man waiting endlessly for a gatekeeper to permission his access to the law which is never delivered. Lithographs accompany the retelling. It is an uncomfortable and depressing tale that serves as the backbone to Josef’s labyrinth to learn of the charges, and in tandem, clear his name with or without the bureaucratic representatives. In Welles’s communication of a brief Kafka tale, he underlines the desperation in the The Trial in a more plausible situation. The society depicted is muted of music, art, or any signs of culture. It is a stripped back setting that forbids any distraction from individual plight.
The paralyzing aspects to Josef’s destiny unsettle and do not abate for the two-hour run. Instinctively, audiences will bemoan the tedium (heard several funny comments at Film Forum), but I could not ignore the nagging sensibility that we were expected to acknowledge the despair and limitations that to lesser degrees imprison our own lives. I would not regard this film as one to invite laughter, to solve a puzzle, or to be used for background filler. It is more accurate to state that its theme will resonate in life moments and prolonged tribulations. I suppose there is an assurance in knowing profound minds opted to highlight this reality which connects us throughout time (side note: film earned award recognition). Welles mastered Kafka and lest memory fails, F For Fake (1973) was a triumph as well.