Thursday, April 4, 2013

Orson Welles | The Trial (Le Procès)

a landscape of waiting

Orson Welles (screenplay, after Franz Kafka) and director The Trial (Le Procès) / 1962

Orson Welles’ 1962 film The Trial begins with a pinscreen scene recounting the story of the man waiting to be invited in before the doors of justice for an entire lifetime before discovering that the door in front of which he waited was only for him. That brief beginning parable (which is referred to in Kafka’s fiction) and the narrator’s following statement about the work possibly being a dream immediately takes this movie out of Kafka territory and into the world of a kind of academic essay that delimits the original book’s meaning. In Kafka, the arrest of Josef K is so very terrifying precisely because it is not a dream, but a kind of perverse reality that only a paranoid mind could imagine. Kafka’s is a world that cannot be, but is nonetheless, a world that is unimaginable but—with awful prediction—did come to pass, as we know, in the worlds of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin created in the decades after The Trial was written.
     Given that misleading introduction, it is no wonder that Welles’ The Trial is very different from Kakfa’s surreal work. Anthony Perkins’ K is far more clever and argumentative than Kafka’s hero as I remember him, and the world he inhabits, unlike Kafka’s almost claustrophobic city, consists of vast spaces, filmed mostly in the then-empty Gare d’Orsay of Paris, outside Zagreb, in Dubrovnik, Rome, and Milan, which instead of closing in the terrified K, opens up the world to him and the viewer. All women in Welles’ film seem absolutely ready to have sex with Perkins’ handsome K, and the story ends, not in his death by being stabbed in the heart, dying “like a dog,” but with K., as if he were the hero of a World War II action film, scooping up several sticks of dynamite and hurling them back, in a blast of smoke and a mushrooming cloud, at his assailants. While Kafka’s K, despite his pleas and attempts at placating the authorities, is doomed from the outset, Welles’ K, despite his nervous twitches of fear and guilt, seems to win out, perceiving that there is no meaning at all to the accusations against him.

      In short, we recognize from the beginning, Welles’ The Trial, unlike Haneke’s The Castle has, in many respects, little to do with the original. Perhaps we should just describe Welles’ work as “suggested” by or “in the manner of Kafka”—although even that would be a kind of exaggeration—and leave it at that. For, although Welles’ Trial is not nearly as absurdly effective as Kafka’s version, it is a certainly a moving piece of film-making—one of the very few in which Welles had complete artistic control—which does present us with many of issues of guilt and innocence, logic and illogic, sanity and paranoia that are dealt with in the great writers’ work.
     In some senses, moreover, Perkins seems to be the perfect Josef K, his lanky handsomeness with his large eyes and nervous demeanor, calling up a more presentable K than I imagined from my long-ago reading. What he seems to lack in terms of the characters’ timidity and  general apprehension, Perkins makes up for his obvious sexual discomfort (something Hitchcock immediately recognized in his Psycho of two years earlier) in the arms of Jeanne Moreau (as his neighbor Marika Burstner), Romy Schneider (as Leni), and Elsa Martinelli (as Hilda). If he stands up to his male colleagues far more than Kafka’s figure, his fascination with but complete befuddlement regarding the women he encounters reveal him also as a conflicted being, perpetually “sorry” for even being in their company and fearful of being “caught.” The wonderful scene in which he visits the artist Totorelli (William Chappell), where dozens of young girls luridly peak through the spaces in the wall like a gaggle of teenage-girls trying to get a view of their favorite rock-star, sets Perkins’ K into a horrifying frenzy, only to have him discover that the rickety construction in which the artist lives is attached to the court itself. It is almost as if K were being tried for deeds he has not yet committed. Certainly, the court is somehow behind everything.

      But even more than through his characters, Welles’ drama comes alive in its landscapes, the vast staircases and spaces of the various sets, particularly in the director’s strange mix of domestic and the official, as when K first visits the court, outside of which we see a woman doing her laundry before the camera, crossing the threshold of a door, reveals a vast room of laughing justices. K’s office, simulating the immense office spaces of King Vidor’s 1927 silent film The Crowd, hints also of the inhumane working spaces of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (also of 1960).

    One of the most spectacular scenes is in the apartment of the Advocate, Albert Hastler (played by Orson Welles himself), where in one room, K encounters the beautiful assistant to Hastler, Leni, among piles of paper seemingly as far-reaching as the possessions left behind by William Randolph Hearst at the time of his death in Welles’ Citizen Kane.
          Similarly, Welles’ eerie and often creepy use of shadows and pointless tranverses of space brings Beckett to mind, particularly in the long scene in which his neighbor’s crippled friend drags Fraulein Burstner’s luggage across a bleak urban landscape only to nearly repeat her steps, all the while arguing with the seemingly guiltless K, who realizes suddenly that, indirectly, he has been responsible for his neighbor’s displacement. As in a hall of mirrors—or perhaps we should say, as in the house of mirrors Welles used so spectacularly in his 1947 film, The Lady from Shanghai—tiny closets in which the men who originally arrested K are being beaten, lead into seemingly never-ending rooms, gothic cathedrals hover over tiny squares, small lean men like K are reflected as towering shadows. Welles’ world may not be precisely Kafka’s, but it is certainly a menacingly Baroque world able to terrorize everyone—both those with power and those without.
     And finally, Welles’ world is one of waiting, revealing long lines of patiently waiting figures (described as “Jews”) nearly everywhere K goes. It is a world where nearly everyone is forced to wait: even K admits that all who visit him must wait, sometimes for several days, including his innocent cousin Irmie who attempts to visit him at his office.
      If in Kafka, we have no real evidence whatsoever that K has done anything “wrong,” Welles’ K slowly reveals his “guilt.” In being so thoroughly a man of the system, Perkins’ K represents just what has turned against him as an individual. From the very beginning, the police involve not only his neighbor but his office mates, whom they invite in to see K’s “arrest” like leering voyeurs, perhaps to observe what may soon also happen to them. In short, while Kafka attenuates nearly all to confuse and confound us, Welles hits us over the head. It may hurt a little but it’s all quite powerful nevertheless.

Los Angeles, April 3, 2013

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