I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Disdain For Bureaucracy: Orson Welles "The Trial"

by William Benton
May 19, 2014

“Monstrous bureaucracy. Villain of the peace.”
- Orson Welles

In 1960, Alexander Salkind approached Orson Welles to make a film version of the Nikolai Gogol short story Taras Bulba. Welles said he was a fan of the story and of Gogol’s writings but was equally a fan of Salkind’s offer of carte blanche over the project and a decent budget. Unfortunately, it was very soon discovered that Yul Brynner was already at work on a film version of Taras Bulba, prompting Salkind to present Welles with a list consisting of approximately 82 other titles for screen adaptation. (They were said to have all been public domain titles.)

Welles decided that The Trial was the only doable one.

An obvious talent of Welles’ was his ability to adapt material, a subject, or even a series of circumstances to produce a work of art entirely relevant to his personal self, resulting in that unmistakable stamp of originality he would place upon it. The Trial is as much of a fruitful testament to this strength- often under duress- as anything he would ever complete again. And if any discussion of Welles’ film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial can bypass a weighty discussion of the novel vs. the film, one might be able to appreciate the director’s assimilation of Kafka’s writing as a surreal composite of the tragic life of the boy genius himself, and his disdain for the bureaucracy that often butchered his works and hindered his visions.

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” 
- Orson Welles

The look and feel Welles accomplished in The Trial is stunning and effectively unsettling for what he referred to as a black comedy. Nearly all of the interiors were shot in the Gare d’Orsay- a godsend of a location after the entire production had been abruptly transplanted from Yugoslavia to Paris when it became apparent that they were being swindled by the Yugoslav crews. Welles, spotting what he described as “two moons” in the wee hours saw the two clocks of the Gare d’Orsay and investigated to find his new shooting home for the film. Its massive halls provided all of the space and grandeur that he wanted and would use to create Kafka’s alternate universe.

Josef K’s world is a nightmare of tangled confusion,  pressed through the channels of an airtight, bureaucratic regime that seems as much Orwellian as it does Kafkaesque. There seems to be no recognizable paths between the sterile, industrial scenery (that is reminiscent ofEraserhead in tone and lifelessness), the sprawling sea of typists at his workplace (Brazil?), or a courtroom that is packed with laughing, conspiratorial occupants. There is no place for Josef to maneuver,  as he climbs and grasps on and around the bench, standing on a small ledge trying to state his case. In fact, Josef has to go through a large laundry room to even get to the courtroom, which seems inconvenient enough to possibly mean something- or is perhaps just meant to further disorient the audience in this labyrinthine netherworld? These different places seem as if they move around as unpredictably as characters within the story.

There is a tense momentum achieved in The Trial that is created by the shortening of shots and scenes as the film progresses toward its conclusion. The first shots are very long takes, allowing the viewer plenty of time to stew on the cryptic information being divulged. By the time the final act arrives, the shots are short and frantic in their pace. Welles’ uses of angled close-ups and inventive lighting are notorious signatures of his style, and these techniques bring K’s fateful march to a fever pitch without ever handing over any easy answers to the audience.

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” 
- Franz Kafka

Anthony Perkins delivers a fantastic performance as the unfortunate Josef K. He had a comparable look to Franz Kafka, being slender, dark, and wiry. Among the many interpretations of the story and what the actual charge against K may be, Perkins convinces us of nothing fully; he starts out innocently enough, and eventually seems to accept some brand of guilt along the way.

As he nervously navigates this dark and nightmarish world that grows more paranoid with every minute, it is almost as if guilt germinates within K; as if accusations gaslight him into believing he has committed an unforgivable crime or IS an unforgivable crime.

Orson’s friend, Henry Jaglom, claimed that Welles knew that Perkins was a homosexual and utilized his harboring of such a secret in his portrayal of K to great effect. The parade of veiled and not-so-veiled sexual situations within The Trial do agree with this story/theory, if only from our contemporary perspective as the women of the film (and novel) are surely a troublesome lot to K.

Sympathy is never achieved as K displays an array of attitudes toward his difficult situation of being accused of this unknown crime. He desperately questions, angrily demands, and nearly whines at times, yet exudes authority and confidence when speaking or acting in regard to his professional life.

Like nearly every other aspect of this film, just when the character of Josef K might have settled or established himself in a way that a viewer might be able to gain leverage, another scene will flip that perception sideways. Perkins masterfully drags us along with his guilt (or guiltlessness!) without making the audience sympathetic.

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” 
-Orson Welles

Welles himself makes an appearance as The Advocate: a character meant to be wholly dishonest and powerful. He’s bedridden and tended to by a young girl, sustained by the begging of the guilty for his influence and assistance.

Welles claimed that he had asked Jackie Gleason to play the part but he turned it down. He saw himself as the only other, affordable option within the required acting caliber. Naturally.

One cannot help but match the loathsome characteristics of The Advocate with Welles’ own feelings about the money men that control the film industry. Perhaps this is some of the black comedy he claimed the film to be?

“I started at the top and worked my way down.” 
- Orson Welles

Hunter S. Thompson once named his heroes as Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan, and Muhammad Ali. His reasoning being that they, despite whatever decisions and actions each may have exercised in their diverse lives, never sold out on being themselves. Similarly, Welles seems to affix himself to a comparable message within this film, as is demonstrated in K’s repulsion of the character Bloch’s (played by Akim Tamiroff, Uncle Joe Grandi in Touch of Evil) submission to the Advocate, as Bloch grovels, kisses his hand, and begs and pleads for his mercy and assistance.

K rejects the Advocate’s “help”, and with it, causes his own certain demise. The bureaucracy surrounding K’s entire life is stifling, fascist, mysterious, hateful, and doesn’t allow him any chance at all to remedy the trajectory of his fate.

Roger Ebert, when writing about The Trial, said “He made the greatest film ever made and was never forgiven for it.”

Too true. Welles likely imagined scenarios in his life where he could have operated just differently enough for more projects to have gone more his way, and to have achieved more acceptance in the commercial film world.

The motion picture industry was and still is filled with accusers; and those accusations made him guilty of something- some things- even if the charges were and are never explained when examining only his masterful works.

He was guilty of being Orson Welles.

Note: Much of the production information was taken from a speech Welles gave at the University of Southern California in 1981 and can be seen, unedited,  here.

Additional information can be found amongst four hours of interviews by Peter Bogdanovich, available here.

William Benton