Release – 1962
Director – Orson Welles
Orson Welle’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s absurdist masterpiece follows the plot closely, but upon inspection busts with design choices that layer its story with subtext. He called it his masterpiece, and at the time hardly a critic agreed. ‘A dead thing, like some tablet, found among the dust of forgotten men,’ said Charles Higham’s Welles biography.
The original novel is no easy read as Kafka never finished much of his work before his death and it was all released posthumously, and I would say that this adaptation is no easy watch either. Joseph K was never a very likable protagonist, he is easy to flare up and anger, coming across as arrogant and at times discourteous. For me, it was always about tone and the actual mystery of the case.
However, having Anthony Perkins play the part of the accused man was a stroke of genius, and intentional, as Welles knew very well that he was gay. Judged by every person he meets, avoiding the advances of every woman he comes across, even when K talks about his spouse, showing a picture, we never see her, as the photograph is held facing away from the camera.
Visually the Trial stands tall, as tall as the cold, heartless buildings that litter the backdrop of the city. I would not be surprised if Terry Gillian’s own nightmarish dystopia in Brazil was influenced by the world of the Trial. All corporate, all concrete, and complicated, the cluttered scenes of the workplace built of rows and rows of desks, the buildings of many, many windows, the leering shadows looking to envelope the light. The use of close-ups and perspective is utterly suffocating. Perkins was no small man yet he is often dwarfed by his surroundings and his foes through clever camera work.
Its pacing may be strange for some, its narrative structure seemingly random, its tone too hopeless, yet the Trial was never a story driven by conventional rules or ever meant to be a romp. It is a nightmare in story form, ruled by chaos, characters say the strangest, most random things, K trips from one place to another with little logical geographical sense. Dream Logic is a phrase that I would apply to this, from David Lynch’s own canon. Remembering that Gordon Cole, Lynch’s doppelganger, keeps a portrait of Kafka in his office, the reference becomes even more obvious. Modern reassessments have announced it to be a masterpiece, but for me, its influence in the many great works that followed it is enough respect, for the words of a critic mean little up against the love of an artist.