The trial

From page to picture: Orson Welles’ take on Kafka’s The Trial

The Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford held a special showing of Orson Welles’ The Trial. The 1962 film, adapted from Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name, features stars such as Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, and Welles himself. 

The 28 May showing was part of the Oxford Kafka 2024 programme, a University-wide initiative to commemorate the centenary of Kafka’s death and highlight his enduring influence. The new Kafka exhibition at the Weston Library is also part of the programme. 

The programme’s Kafka’s Transformative Communities (KTC) project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is working to bring Kafka to audiences through different artistic mediums: prose fiction, music, dance, drama, and visual art. The special showing of The Trial was part of the visual art dimension.

The showing began with an introduction from Oxford Professor Carolin Duttlinger, who helps run the KTC project, and Peter Bradshaw, the chief film critic at The Guardian. Duttlinger gave some background on the KTC project, noting it has been in the works for a few years and the film showing marks the “first big moment for the project”. 

Bradshaw discussed the film in greater detail, conferring it strong acclaim as one of Welles’ best as it successfully reproduces “the novel’s skin-crawling strangeness”. He praised the film’s dreamlike logic, typical of Kafka’s novels. 

The trial

He went on to discuss some of the film’s history, legacy, and stylistic techniques. Filmed in Zagreb, Croatia, The Trial features interesting architecture found in the city, such as Soviet-style apartment blocks. It also features the then-abandoned Paris railway station, the Gare d’Orsay, which is now the Musée d’Orsay.  

Following the introductory remarks, I was keen to draw my own conclusions about the adaptation. Needless to say, the next two hours heightened my appreciation for Kafka and turned me into a huge fan of Welles.

The film has some differences from the novel. For instance, it reorders some of the chapters and also slightly alters the ending. It should be noted the novel itself was never fully finished but was published posthumously thanks to Kafka’s close friend Max Brod’s editorial work. 

Whether one has read the novel or not, the film fully captures the core of Kafka’s written works. The nightmarish and complex quality of his fictional world is unsettling and dizzying, evoking feelings of alienation and existential dread in the face of an often oppressive and omnipresent force or structure. 

Welles pays a true homage to the Kafkaesque with his own creative spin. Blending dark humour, baroque visuals, absurdity, and surrealism, he creates a fascinating, expressionist take on Kafka. Interestingly, he avoids describing the film as an adaptation of the novel, instead claiming it’s a “film inspired by the book”. It remains faithful to the novel’s spirit but through Welles’ own lens and interpretation.

The trial

The Trial describes the story of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), a bank employee suddenly arrested and prosecuted for a crime that remains undisclosed to him and the reader (or in this case, the viewer). Josef attempts to find the truth of his arrest but struggles against an impenetrable, hidden, and absurd legal system. 

The story, like many of Kafka’s works, does not have one single interpretation. Binary understandings of characters or fixed interpretations do not have a place in Kafka’s world. Simplistic characterisations or understandings undermine and diminish his genius.

Though readers and audiences alike may draw different interpretations, the story ultimately touches upon themes such as all-pervasive guilt, bureaucracy, and oppression. It’s often understood to criticise bureaucratic, unjust structures that diminish personal autonomy or promote unethical behaviour. Touching on concepts such as ethics, justice, and morality in subtle and surreal ways, the film enables multiple interpretations.

The story can be hard to follow for those unfamiliar with Kafka’s dreamlike logic, especially as the film maintains that quality through focusing the narrative solely on Josef. His experiences are portrayed as fragments, and the world seems non-existent beyond his own being. 

Admittedly, I need another watch to better follow along the narrative, but also because I still cannot get over the cinematography of the film. Cinematographer Edmond Richard, together with Welles, created one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever experienced. As a serial movie streamer, I have to emphasise how important it is to experience this film with a movie screen to feel its full impact.

The trial

The camera is always intentional, using disorienting angles to help create the dreamlike quality, while also inviting the viewer to look both at and through Josef. The use of perspective is phenomenal coupled with the artistic compositions. Each frame in this film could easily be a painting on its own.

It’s a black-and-white film, yet through the use of shadows, shapes, silhouettes, textures, and lighting, the movie is somehow vivid and striking despite the lack of colour. It’s like nothing I had ever seen before, and I greatly appreciate the thought and intention behind the film’s artistic vision.

Welles’ signature long takes, expressionistic lighting, improvisation, and camera movement breathes new life into the story. It’s hard to believe the film came out so long ago, but its appeal stands as testament to its high quality. 

The film begs to be watched again, enabling a better understanding of its narrative and visual imagery each time. It is a highly artistic take on Kafka, one that will surely leave viewers disoriented in the best way.

Welles himself said The Trial is the best film he’s ever made. I’ve yet to watch his other films, but I left the theatre as a big fan. Whether you’ve read Kafka or not, you’ll surely have an interesting exposure to his work through this phenomenal adaptation.