THE TRIAL (France 1962)

l_57427_0bda35dcA harmless, inconsequential clerk wakes up one morning to find himself accused of something (he never discovers what). Secret policemen enter his bedroom and subject him to a frightening interrogation in which every answer provokes a new line of questioning.

This is psychological torture, the mind’s innate sense of justice constantly probing for some higher appeal to fairness, when in fact none exists. Josef K returns repeatedly to the obvious question, “But what have I done?” But there are no rules of justice here, no recourse to an autonomous code of law. A cry of anguish from the individual who finds himself overwhelmed by soulless bureaucracy.

“The Trial” is a deeply personal statement by director Orson Welles,  a symbol, if there ever was one, of his own career. Welles had been the enfant terrible whose erratic genius had alienated the big Hollywood studios. Cut off from the big money, he was to spend the subsequent forty years globetrotting aimlessly, picking up work as best he could. He’d peaked at the age of twenty-five and that was that.

the-trialAutobiographical elements of Kafka’s own life, contained in “The Trial”, are given prominence in the film. Austria-Hungary launched World War One in the same year that Kafka began work on the novel. Ironically, the limited war against Bosnia, intended to restore Austria’s international credibility, destroyed Austria-Hungary. Welles closes this story of 1914 with an image of nuclear catastrophe, stressing the oneness of the century’s horror. Kafka was bullied by his father, and reference is made in the course of the film to K’s sense of filial guilt. The office is depressing and demeaning, echoing Kafka’s own experiences as a clerk in a bloated bureaucracy.

The State is remorseless and pitiless, grinding down and perverting even the strongest of human bonds, those of familial and sexual love. K is forced to reject his little cousin Irmie (Maydra Shore), who has to remain ‘outside’. Later, an allegation of sexual impropriety concerning Irmie arises. Any magnanimity towards another is interpreted by the authorities as a denunciation. The torture scenes involving the secret policemen are the most disturbing part of the film, both because K realises how his own protests have borne poisonous fruit, and because of the grinning obsequiousness of the victims. The State turns its problems into spineless curs who acquiesce in their own degradation.

proces_3Not only does K find himself becoming an accuser: he even assumes the role of interrogator, questioning Bloch and the Defendants. Anyone who is not a key holder within the pitiless apparatus of The State cannot help but take on its deadly pallor. Keys are important. Leni, the Court Guard and Zitorelli are empowered through possessing keys. They are a corrupt priesthood in this cult of political disease. Kafka’s experiences with women were deeply ambivalent. He had many intense relationships in his life, none of which proved satisfactory.

His book treats women as both temptress and objects of loathing. Welles follows this line, the women being desirable guide-figures and also deformed monstrosities. The trunk-carrier, Lena, and the hunchback girl all have bodily malformations. Welles shot most of the film in Zagreb, capturing strikingly the two clashing styles of architecture of Mittel-Europa, overblown ugly Habsburg baroque and drab communist functionalism. It is as if the Prague of Mozart cannot help but decay into the Prague of Krushchev. “Ostensibly free” is the best K can hope for, as the shadows of the Stalinist apartment blocks crowd in on him.

oswa

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! Anthony Perkins did a fantastic job in this film too – a master of portraying vulnerability. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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