Welles’ Greatest Puzzle? – The Trial

In a career which saw Orson Welles adapt Shakespeare, Tarkington and that other notable Wells, there’s perhaps no greater indication as to Welles adeption at adaption than his encounter with Franz Kafka. In turning to Kafka’s ‘Der Process’, Welles produced one of his most visually striking works. A rhetorical question of a film, The Trial saw Welles take to Paris, and a work that refers to the cinema as much as it does Kafka’s source material. Welles claimed to have strictly been against homage, and while this may be true, the external reading of the work can’t fail but to look to the movies. In fact, one might argue that the manner in which Welles’ film evokes the wider realm of the cinema in practically every shot makes for a case of the kid from Kenosha as the ultimate omnipresent harbinger of the movies.

The Trial looks to tokens of popular culture as diverse as Jean Cocteau and ‘The Twilight Zone’, while the scenario recalls Vidor. The presence of Anthony Perkins brings to mind Psycho, his place here actually reminds of another Hitchcock film: The Trial acting like a metaphysical response to North By Northwest (even down to the suit). Perkins is the inverted Jimmy Stewart, his impassioned speech in The Trial’s famous courtroom sequence the reverse negative of that of Mr. Smith (who went to Washington). From the apocalyptic office space to the Harry Lime-esque sewers, one can’t help but feel as though Welles is making a statement as much as anything, on the world that changed in the wake of a second World War.

Perkins’ Josef K. wanders around a post-apocalyptic setting like something from an Antonioni film, whilst channeling a post-Godardian sense of the absurd as real. Filtering the holocaust through Catholic guilt-complex Welles comments on the post-WW2 landscape effectively, while the internalised monologue that is essentially the film at hand is contradicted nicely by the bustling locales. As K. sits in on a theatrical performance the audience doesn’t get to see what’s unfolding on stage, instead their gaze forced to focus upon the literal audience of the picture.

The locations/sets sit at the centre of a hugely affecting visual pattern. A haunting, Auschwitz-evoking crowd stand like statues, while thousands of extras give the film the tone of a biblical epic in parts, both aesthetically and thematically. It’s these occasional bursts of populace that are the films greatest asset when it comes to reinforcing the dreamlike quality. A surreal thrashing in a cupboard, in which a light swings through a confined space is encouraged by ferocious editing see things turn positively Hell-ish (and let’s not forget that the term “trial” can be reapplied to suggest a hardship/nightmare situation), while the character of The Advocate (played by Welles himself) occupies a space that reminds of a Universal Monsters film set, all candles and smoke, while the Advocate himself wears a mask and his assistant has webbed fingers. While tonally very different to much of Welles work, The Trial maintains the playful spirit many associate with the filmmaker. It’s arguably his most surreal 120 minutes, and at times is his most distressing.

From the opening prologue, drawn by notable artist Alexandre Alexeieff, in which Welles relays a second Kafka tale, ‘Before The Law’, the motif of the door is placed at the fore. Door keys and mirrors (the theoretical opposite of a closed door) feature commonly throughout, while the physical act of breaking down a door in the films third-act forms the closest thing we see to an escape for freedom, even if the spirit of the story does necessitate that K. must always wind up in the same spiral of chaos in spite of his attempts to break through. The focus on doors also acts as a straight indication of on-screen space too, as does the familiar Wellesian emphasis on ceilings. The director’s fondness for ceilings comes in to it’s own in the law courts, as once majestic roofs become a character of their own. Welles refrains from framing his protagonist in the centre of his picture, instead choosing to place him on the fringes of any scenario involving another figure (see his encounters with Leni,one of the films anti-love interests, or the situation that unfolds in the cupboard). The world itself is a maze, with as diverse commodities as stacks of paper and piles of bricks forming the paths. It’s perhaps the manner in which Welles presents the world of Titorelli, the painter, and key figure of the films third act, that fascinates the most. Wooden stakes form the walls of his studio/living space, while masses of stray children peer thru the gaps, the set in turn becoming a prison. Titorelli himself wears prison stripes and corduroy trousers, the vertical lines again prominent.

In presenting such oppressive thematic content in as contrasting a free-flowing and light-hearted manner as he does, Welles produced perhaps his greatest puzzle, which, for a figure whose filmography is filled with such jigsaws, is really saying something. 

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