An unassuming office worker is arrested and stands trial, but he is never made aware of his charges.An unassuming office worker is arrested and stands trial, but he is never made aware of his charges.An unassuming office worker is arrested and stands trial, but he is never made aware of his charges.
For the entirety of the long scene in K's bedroom, and throughout the major part of the film, Welles positions the camera slightly below waist height. This 'wrong' spatial relationship creates in the viewer a vague sense of unease, a visual disorientation which compounds K's emotional loss of bearings. Welles plays clever tricks with the proportions of the rooms, their lines being slightly out of kilter, and the ceilings very much in view. Typically, Welles is deliberately and flamboyantly breaking a cardinal rule of cinematography - 'keep the ceiling out of shot'. Interiors seem open and spacious if we can't see the ceiling, and Welles is after the converse effect: driving home the point that K inhabits an airless, joyless place and his surroundings are imbued with inchoate hostility.
German expressionism had gripped Welles' imagination back in the 1930's, and virtually all of his films show its abiding influence. The columns of the opera house represent social regimentation, and K offends against social conformity by awkwardly pushing his way out of the theatre, an irregular irritant polluting the symmetry of the seating. When K gets caught in the exodus of workers from the office, he is both literally and metaphorically swimming against the tide. His microscopic ineffectuality against the ponderous stateliness of the courtroom doors drives home the expressionist point - he is a puny Jonah, entering the cavernous bowels of The State.
"To be in chains is sometimes safer than being free," and it could be said that Welles' genius flourished best when shackled by a dearth of resources. Lacking the money for costumes during the shooting of "Othello", Welles turned adversity to artistic advantage, filming the murder scene in a turkish bath, not only obviating the need for clothing but also making a succinct point about Iago's motives being 'stripped bare'. "The Trial" affords another example of Welles' remarkable fecundity. Zitorelli's studio is built of cheap slats and lit from outside, creating a powerful cinematic image of The State's placeman clinging precariously to his wretched privileges - all filmed at practically no expense. The skewed, empty picture frames are silent comments on the distorted and barren perspective of Zitorelli, the human race's Benedict Arnold.
K is a Freudian picaro, journeying in despair through the intestines of a nightmare system of justice, an apparatus ironically designed to ensure that justice is stifled. The shades of Buchenwald are introduced by Welles. Defendants wait with meathooks above their heads and, in other parts of this unfathomable 'system', nameless naked unfortunates stand in quiet misery, their numbers hanging from their necks. Leni and The Wife are grotesque distortions of Dante's Beatrice, malformed guides with no sense of direction and no transcendent vision. Welles himself plays Hassler the advocate, the bully who has no thought of his client's welfare but seeks only to perpetuate the cruel gavotte of litigation. "The confusion's impenetrable," a point reinforced by shooting characters through interminable patterns of beams and girders, whose shifting geometry engulfs the insignificant humans.
In his 1985 biography of Welles, Charles Higham declared "The Trial" a failure, concluding that it was "muffled, dull, unexciting on every level". Perhaps more tellingly, he criticised Welles for adopting a grandiose approach, whereas Kafka's work cries out for spareness and understatement. Higham is excellent, but the film is not, in my humble opinion, a failure. It evokes with emotional power a dreamspace of despair, and in so doing renders a great service to Kafka's oeuvre.
- Dec 30, 1999