I wasn’t ready for this movie.
When I sat down on Wednesday night to watch the Orson Welles film The Trial, based on the Franz Kafka novel of the same name, I guess that I was expecting something more traditional than what was delivered. I say this because The Trial is a disorienting, difficult, and ultimately rewarding film from one of the most legendary filmmakers in American history, and is something that will make you think heavily about what you’re seeing. And, you’ll likely be very confused.
It’s because of that feeling that I sat down on Thursday night, just less than twenty-four hours after I first viewed the film, and watched it again. This time, I knew what to expect and was able to follow the storyline much more clearly and was, I turn, more rewarded.
The plot follows a man named Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), who is woken up early one morning by two groups of men, one claiming to be police and the second other workers from his office. They tell him that he’s under arrest and interrogate him, but he’s never told what crime he’s being arrested for, and he claims innocence. Right in the opening scene, Welles is leaving us dizzy, by having seemingly inconsequential lines spoken by the characters come back around to completely different meanings just a few minutes later. This feeling of not being prepared is a major part of what makes The Trial such an impressive work.
By the time Josef leaves his apartment, we’ve already been introduced to his beautiful, woozy, nightclub-employed neighbor (Jeanne Moreau), and when he arrives at his office it’s quite a sight to behold. The work environment feels like something from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with long stretches of desks occupied by secretaries ceaselessly typing away, all of them essentially faceless and intimidating when taken as an entire entity. This type of imagery continues throughout the entire film.
What follows is a movie that will frustrate and engage you in equal measure, but don’t let that put you off from watching. Even if you don’t like the story, it’s hard not to admire things like Perkins’ impressive performance, Welles making a humorous appearance as the man who is supposed to be helping Josef but is clearly untrustworthy. In this new justice system he’s been introduced to, Josef will meet a court room full of laughing men in suits, “the accused”, who simply stand around the court room’s hall, not doing anything other than blankly staring ahead, more than aware of their fate.
Interestingly, parts of the movie were made in France during the early 1960’s. Due to this, it can’t be a coincidence how much this feels like the product of the French New Wave. There’s a scene towards the end where Josef goes to visit the man who paints portraits of judges in the court system he’s been thrust into. The area in which the painter lives is occupied by women, who, when told by Josef where he is going, chase him up to the painter’s quarters. This wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the early films of Truffaut or Godard, as would a scene that has him running from the same women down a hallway that is only illuminated by lines of light, creating a picture that looks like something from an underground avant-garde film.
This strange imagery is something that Welles has done before, whether it’s the climactic scene of The Stranger, the mask party from Mr. Arkadin, or even the opening shots of his best known film, Citizen Kane. In addition, during the aforementioned chase scene, having Perkins run through a sewer with his shadow chasing him feels incredibly similar to a scene in The Third Man, in which Welles had one of his most famous acting roles. Because of this, The Trial feels like the visual culmination of his entire career. Many of his other trademarks are present, such as labyrinth plots, beautiful women, main characters trying to uncover a mystery either about or involving themselves, and the corruption that comes with power.
When I watched The Trial a second time, I gained a much deeper appreciation for its subtleties and missteps, because even if we don’t fully understand everything that happens, that’s what we’re supposed to feel. If our hero is confused, what gives us the right to know more than him? So, if you do watch this film, and I think you should, don’t be afraid to dive into the story for a second time. Because, I’m glad I did, and I still don’t understand everything that I was shown.
I think a third viewing is in order.
The Trial is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.