REVIEW: The Trial [1962]

“To be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free”

What do you get when you combine two masters at their craft like Franz Kafka and Orson Welles? Why, The Trial, of course—a heady, surrealistic commentary on society and justice. Much like the novel Atlas Shrugged, laws here are made not to be followed, but to be broken. Society is constructed on the spine of guilt. One doesn’t need to be aware of what they have or haven’t done; to just be accused is all that is needed to break him. Our protagonist, Joseph K., has been awoken in his bed by the police and placed under arrest for a crime they will not allow him to be privy to. Instead, the characters run around in circles, showing us literal interpretations to everything that is uttered aloud. Much like a dark comedy—yes there are laughs in this one—words are taken at face value without any room for error. While causing humor with the viewers, it creates a feeling of helplessness for our hero. Joseph is led around and around through the corridors of the law system and his own head. Is he sane? Is what is happening real? He is running for answers, but at every turn only more questions are discovered.

This film would be perfect for a graduate level literature course. I am not trying to compose a dissertation here, so I will not attempt to decipher what goes on. There is so much subtlety and nuance at play here that it would take days to wrap one’s head around what they believe has occurred. Just off the top of my head I can think of two ways to take the movie. One goes along the lines of what I discussed previously, a society run on guilt where only the idea of an accusation can cause doubt in one’s own mind. Joseph knows he did nothing wrong, but as the story continues he slowly starts to think that maybe he is at fault, maybe the whole world is guilty. Living so long in a world where only dead ends await you and those supposedly helping are merely prolonging the inevitable can tear any man apart. The tunnels of sanity are never ending and destruction is the only release, whether self-inflicted or enforced. Sometimes acceptance is needed to arrive at an end. To be in the enemies pocket may be better than free and unprotected.

My other interpretation of the movie lies more on the David Lynch plane of surrealism. There are numerous allusions sprinkled throughout about pedophilia. From Joseph’s boss thinking he is having an affair with his 16 year old “cousin,” to his crush on an older women while trying his hardest to avoid the advances of younger girls, to the blatant use with the court painter, (his entire diatribe is laced with double meaning from the girls’ glee at wanting to enter his room to his threats of using his ice pick), it is very prevalent. In this way, one could almost say that Joseph is guilty of this atrocity much like the murder by Bill Pullman’s character in Lynch’s Lost Highway. He is so disgusted and unwilling to accept his transgression that he creates a dreamlike trial for his soul. The film, therefore, could be all inside his head, a manifestation of his own guilt and an attempt at seeking judgment for himself.

No matter what the real meaning of the film is, one cannot deny the beauty in the orchestration of all that goes on. Welles was a genius of innovation to the media of film. His cinematic intuition is unmatched as he creates gorgeous moments of stunning visuals. Just the amount of long takes has to reach into double-digits. The opening scene, following Joseph as he awakens and attempts to leave through the numerous doors of his rooms ushers us into the technical wonders we are about to see. If Welles can make a box of a room into a setpiece full of intrigue, just imagine the beauty on display when we get outside the apartment walls. Joseph’s office full of machine-like workers can’t be looked at without thinking how Terry Gilliam appropriated it for his own opus Brazil, and the transitions from scene to scene of him running through different sets as though they are all connected can be seen everywhere in film today. Welles was never afraid to take a chance and for a film as deep and intricate as this one, there was no way he would hold back here. I loved the part when Joseph runs from the painter’s quarters through the narrow wood-slatted hallway, stripes of light shining on him as he advances towards the camera.

All the acting helps greatly to submerse the audience into the story as well. What could be completely inaccessible, and a cause of frustration and anger from viewers, ends up being acceptable because of our lead being as confused as we are. Anthony Perkins is phenomenal as Joseph. Never-ceasing in his commitment to prove his innocence, he stands up to all outsiders, fearlessly and with a mind ready to intellectually take on all that comes his way. His nervousness and guilt-complex attitude is perfect for the role. Right from the get-go he begins to stutter and partake in Freudian slips. The onslaught of accusations and doubletalk of guilt at such rapid pace metamorphoses him into a broken man unsure of his own memory. Everyone else does a great job too; especially the cops that first come into connect with Perkins and are later punished because of his “formal complaint” towards them. Also, if writing and directing weren’t enough, Welles is a force onscreen as well. His deliberate, deep baritone and gigantic presence, (it seems that when he stands, the camera is always low-angled to make him tower over everyone), make him a force to respect. This alone makes Joseph’s showing of strength against him that much more powerful and, at the same time, futile when held against the grand scheme of things.

The Trial 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


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