THE TRIAL (and The Prisoner)

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Early open concept workplace. Nightmare both then and now.

Welles and The Trial

Orson Welles’s 1962 film, The Trial, was his own loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s German language novel from 1925. It has been justly celebrated by critics and Welles aficionados as one of his finest achievements, and is one of the few projects that he retained control of through the finished product. It is a masterwork of direction, writing, set design, and acting, but is sadly not known as well as many of his other works, probably due to the lack of a proper home video release in the US.* The film will somewhat resist interpretation, because as the narrator (Welles) famously says at the conclusion of the introduction: “It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream, of a nightmare.” Which is to say, no logic at all.

Welles at one time claimed that it was “the best film I have ever made,” and  on another occasion, “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me.” He also resisted any attempts to analyze it in terms of symbolism—which he claimed to hate—whether psychological or otherwise.

So, what is it, then? A dream, yes, but one which still contains an experience of truth, and is therefore meaningful. Welles also claimed he “didn’t intend it to be entertaining—I intended it to be an experience of some kind for the audience.” The experience of the film is dizzying and disconcerting. Josef K. is a banker played by Anthony Perkins, in a mercurial post-Psycho performance, who moves through a series of episodic encounters and confrontations with strange women and men. His paranoiac journey is instigated by a visit in his apartment from some policemen, who seem to be there to accuse him of a crime, but never really get around to it. He proceeds to wander through a bureaucratic wasteland of endlessly queued-up citizens, stacks of paperwork, and labyrinthine rows of file cabinets. In the end, he is killed, executed for reasons as obscure as the motivations of his wanderings from place to place in the film. Welles himself plays the Advocate, a legal figure of some ambiguous stature, who likewise has an ambiguous relationship to K. He functions more as an adversary than an advocate to K., though never in an actual courtroom setting. K. encounters him on three occasions, the first two in his strange apartment, where the Advocate seems to be bedridden and attended by his nurse/mistress. The last time is right before his final moments, where he tells makes a key speech in response to the Advocate’s question of whether he is “not responsible by reason of lunacy.”

I think that’s what the court wants me to believe. Yes, that’s the conspiracy—to persuade us all that the whole world is crazy…formless, meaningless, absurd.

After this speech, K. departs from what appears to have been a church, and is arrested by two goons who take him into a barren place and execute him with explosives.

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Hang in there, K.

He was never tried in any recognizable sense of the word. That irony is part of the nightmare logic of the story. The closest thing to an actual “trial” in The Trial, is the scene about 37 minutes into the film, where K. enters a room packed to the rafters with men. The Advocate is not present, either as defense or accuser; K. has yet to even encounter him. The only question which he is asked is whether he is a house painter. This absurdly mistaken query leads K. to launch into an speech, as he is hanging onto the very edge of the magistrate’s platform, in which he charges all the men present of a vast conspiracy to wrongfully accuse and prosecute himself and other innocent men. The very vague and abstract nature of his defense is in keeping with the rest of the episodes of the film. As in most dreams, a definite and meaningful impression is felt without a rigorous narrative logic being applied.

The impression is that of what it feels like to be lost in a modern world of bureaucratic and social indifference. The individual’s experience is overwhelmed by the process of social structures, in business, law, and even in everyday social interactions. The applications of this are myriad today. Whether it’s the feeling of helplessness we experience in dealing with insurance companies, or the violation when our identity is stolen online, or even the real injustices seen in our courts of law, we can relate to the loss of control and sense that the world is upside down in some fundamental ways.

I have not read the Kafka novel, but even so it is clear that the film is as much Orson Welles as it is Kafka. As Welles told Leslie Megahey in a 1982 interview:

I don’t believe in an essential reverence for the original material. It’s simply part of the collaboration. And I felt no need to be true to Kafka in every essence. I’d thought it was necessary to capture what I felt to be the Kafka atmosphere, which is a combination of modern horror creeping up on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I saw it as a European story, full of old European bric-a-brac, with IBM machines lurking in the background. And that was the way I wanted to present the picture.

Indeed, it is maybe his most atmospheric film, in which he told Peter Bogdanovich that claimed to seek to remain true to “what I take to be the spirit of Kafka; and that is a spirit of hauntings and anguish and all kinds of feelings that stir in the bloodstream of the race.” And again, he said that it doesn’t matter whether or not K. was guilty—indeed how could it, since it’s never clear what crime he may have committed, or even of what he stands accused—but that “it’s a study of the various changing attitudes towards guilt, the way they can be used.”

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“This door was intended only for you. And now…I am going to close it.”

The Trial and The Prisoner

I am a longtime fan of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s revolutionary television series from 1967-1968. In it, McGoohan plays a secret agent who resigns, but is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious Village where the warders try various means to force him to reveal his secret. They seem uninterested in the information he would have gathered as a spy, but only want him to reveal his reason for quitting. McGoohan’s former agent is only called by a number (Number 6), and is never given a name in the series. He tries in nearly every episode to escape the confines of the Village, but is always brought back like Sisyphus to where he started. The series closes with “Once Upon a Time” and “Fallout,” perhaps the most surreal and densely structured pair of episodes in the history of television. Equally confounding and compellingly fascinating, the conclusion with the same sort of nightmare-logic that is present in Welles’s The Trial. “Fallout” begins as a sort of absurdist trial of Number 6, and ends – like The Trial – with explosive violence.

When I saw The Trial for the first time earlier this year, I was struck by the profound similarities between it and McGoohan’s classic series, both thematically and visually. I am not the first person to make this connection, however. An excellent comparison between the two can be found on this UK Prisoner fan page here, and provides a great starting point for examining some of the overlapping concerns of Welles and McGoo0han’s works. Incidentally, McGoohan and Welles did work together in 1955 on Welles’s stage play, Moby Dick—Rehearsed. McGoohan played Starbuck, the first mate opposite Welles as Ahab. In “This is Orson Welles,” Peter Bogdanovich’s book of interviews with the director, Welles is quoted describing Patrick McGoohan, “who’d now be, I think, one of the big actors of his generation if TV hadn’t grabbed him. He can still make it. Well, he was tremendous as Starbuck.” It’s a shame that the planned TV film of the stage production was abandoned.

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Scene from “Once Upon a Time” with Leo McKern in judge’s robes and wig.

The final confrontation in The Trial between K. and the Advocate strongly parallels the sequence in “Once Upon a Time” where Leo McKern’s Number 2 (the apparent head of The Village) is wearing the judge’s regalia and interrogating Number 6. Both scenes contain the striking visual motif of a strong spotlight (from a projector in the case of The Trial) is casting stark lighting on the subject under interrogation. The focus on abstract and absurd wordplay as a means of highlighting the struggle between the individual and society, or the powerful in society, is another powerful link. In fact, the various Number 2’s throughout the series, are like the various men and women that K. encounters. In both cases, the individual is facing pressures to conform to society, or at least to the will of another. In Number 6’s case, each attempted escape lands him back where he began, symbolized rather bluntly by the closing graphic of the bars shutting over the image of his face, at the conclusion of every episode. In the case of K., there is a more subtle depiction of this entrapment: scenes are connected by travels through a strange geography of tunnels and hallways, where attics open up into filing rooms, and sewers into a spacious church.

The question of an individual’s freedom within society is multifaceted and profound, and can be rather abstract and theoretical. Consequently, both Welles and McGoohan chose an abstract, often bafflingly askew method of exploring it. Notions of freedom and responsibility, which can be merely academic, are given a visceral immediacy through the nightmare imagery and wordplay in Welles and McGoohan’s work.

Another Prisoner connection occurs between the episode, “The General,” and a scene that was ultimately excised from the finished version of The Trial. In “The General,” McGoohan’s Number 6 confronts the titular character, who is brain-washing the villagers through a “speed learning” television program. The General is in the end revealed to be a computer, which is confronted by Number 6, and ultimately defeated by the simple act of giving it an open-ended metaphysical question that it cannot answer: “Why?” This resolution is not among the strongest moments in the series, and it seems that Welles made a similar judgment regarding his own computer scene. In The Trial, K. encounters a computer scientist in front of a giant computer bank. After a brief discussion of what the computer is capable of, she tells him that is will present him with “Facts based on the calculation of the probabilities.” These “facts” consist of a prediction of “The crime you’re most likely to commit.” This examination of determinism tracks a similar path to Philip K. Dick’s 1956 story about precognitive policemen, “The Minority Report,” which was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film. Welles explained the scene in the following way (thanks to Wellesnet for the quote):

There was a long scene that lasted eight minutes, which I cut on the eve of the Paris premiere. Joseph K has his fortune told by a computer — that’s what the scene amounted to. It was my invention. I only saw the film as a whole once. We were still in the process of doing the mixing, and then the premiere fell on us. At the last moment I abridged the scene. It should have been the best scene in the film and it wasn’t. Something went wrong, and it didn’t succeed. The subject of that scene was free will. It explains my attitude at the time about computers. My attitude has changed slightly since then, but only slightly. I believe that what that scene did, was to show Man’s slavish relationship to something which is really only his tool. It was a splendid thing to say in the picture, but it turned out to be rather a drag, so I took it out. The scene was tinged with black humor; that was my main weapon. I always direct the humor against the machine and in favor of freedom.

The exploration of the idea of human free will being undermined by the pretensions of machines, both in the scientific and political realms, remains in The Trial despite the deletion of this scene, and is one of the predominant themes explored in The Prisoner.

For further viewing, I recommend you watch this unedited documentary interview footage, where Orson Welles discusses filming The Trial:

* does have a good looking HD streaming version available for sale, but the only Bluray version available for Region A is the Japanese version from StudioCanal. Here’s hoping that someone will release a proper US version; earlier DVD releases look abominable, as does the version streaming on Amazon Prime.

Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962) for Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Second Sight Cinema‘s Order in the Court! Blogathon. Click on the image below to read all the other great entries from other bloggers.


16 thoughts on “THE TRIAL (and The Prisoner)

  1. Interesting comparisons in approach and outlook can be be made between THE TRIAL and the Welles feature film that immediately preceded it, TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). Pulp vs. now-classic literature. Focus on the persecuted vs. the persecutor. An unknown crime (likely not committed) vs. known crime (definitely committed and, as we discover, committed by the persecuted). And still Welles’ message is the same – that the system of supposed justice is unjust, trampling rights to achieve a goal that may be justifiable in the abstract, but can be an oxymoron in the specific.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point, and thanks for reading!
      I just rewatched TOUCH OF EVIL last week, so it’s also fresh on my mind. Welles is definitely concerned with law and abuse of power even on the small scale of a little border town. In this film, any “message” however is really filtered through the non-sequiturs of the nightmare narrative, and is therefore much more ambiguous. For example, it’s not as clear (until, of course, K. is killed) to me what “rights” K. is losing, since it’s not entirely clear what’s even happening to him. If you can watch the video at the end of the post, you can see that Welles himself felt he had an idiosyncratic view of the character of K. His intended interpretation was that K. was not just an oppressed and helpless individual, but rather a person who was trying to climb his way up through the system. Yes, the system destroys him, and there is no rational reason for his murder/execution, but it’s also possible to interpret it that K. somewhat brought it on himself by trying to be a part of the system, to his own advantage.
      More than one interpretation, or shade of interpretation, is certainly possible I think, especially in a dream-narrative like this.
      Again, thanks for reading and for sharing a thought provoking comment!


  2. Hi Joshua ~ Just seeing that big bubble rolling down the grassy park was enough to scare me when I was a kid. I know now that as a grown-up I don’t have to be afraid anymore…reading your post on “The Prisoner” will help. And will help me understand “The Trial.” Thanks so much for joining our blogathon with your astute observations. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Man, I love that show. My dad taped most of the episodes off of broadcast TV in the early 80s when we lived in New Mexico, and I started watching them sometime around junior high or high school. I’m so grateful to have the DVD set now! It’s truly a fascinating show that bears rewatching again and again.
      Thanks so much for hosting another blogathon!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow. Thanks for your impressive review. I love this film, and highly admire Orson Welles. I haven’t seen it for years though, but after reading this, I’ll treat myself to a rewatch.

    I’m also hosting a blogathon next month, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words.
      I appreciate the invitation to your blogathon! I’ll think about it… It looks like you already have an impressive roster. I actually don’t know much at all about Joan Crawford, but I’ll try to at least read some of the entries.


  4. The other extraordinary trial in Welles’s work is in The Lady from Shanghai, where in one scene the defence counsel (Everett Sloane) cross-examines himself

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Roger. LADY FROM SHANGHAI is great, and I need to watch it again.
      One of the great ironies of THE TRIAL is that there isn’t really any trial in it.


  5. I need to see this one again. I started watching it years ago and it scared the living daylights out of me. I’m serious! The first scene with the bewildered Anthony Perkins is so terrifying, I still think of it when I hear of an innocent person who can’t figure out why they’re being railroaded.

    When I get up the nerve to watch the entire thing, I’ll come back to your post as a reference and to compare notes. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it can be very unnerving. Peter Bogdanovich talked about how he didn’t enjoy it, and Welles pointed out that you weren’t supposed to.
      That being said, I find that the further you get into it, the more the expressionistic sets, lighting, and camera work becomes prominent. It’s just a beautiful picture to look at, though beautiful in a slightly grotesque way.
      I hope you will try it again, there’s a lot to experience.
      Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, that was a fascinating essay!
    I’m still haunted by the cinematography of this film – it’s something unforgetable. I then read the novel and was surprised that many things were alike – or maybe my imagination adapted the movie mood to the novel!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for contributing this essay to our blogathon. I love The Trial, it is among my (current) favorite Welles movies, and I do find it enjoyable in a squirmy, disorienting sort of way. Your comparison of the computer scenes in Trial/Prisoner reminded me of two others: One is a Star Trek episode (I’m not a Trekkie and don’t know the episode title) in which Kirk kills a computer with logic (should really be Spock’s job, shouldn’t it?), and the other, my favorite of what I’m just realizing must be dozens of these scenes, is in Alphaville when Lemy destroys Alpha 60 with poetry. Well done, Joshua, and thanks again for playing the home game!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for hosting. I also remember that Star Trek episode. That notion seems to have been a common 50’s/60’s Sci-fi trope. I have yet to see ALPHAVILLE, but it’s high on my list of movies I want to watch. Certainly the Godard movie that I most want to see.
      Thanks again.


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