Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Trial

Orson Welles'  1962 adaptation of Kafka's unfinished novel, The Trial, was made without studio interference and with excellent production values.  Unfortunately, Welles didn't particularly admire Kafka and his version of the book feels like a competition -- at any every point, you expect Welles to abandon the text and go his own way.  Remarkably, Welles restrains himself, more or less, until the last ten minutes of the film, an ending that traduces Kafka and imposes an entirely different meaning on the project.  Welles, of course, was obsessed with narrative technique and embeds tales within tales, creating labyrinthine films where different frames impose different meanings on the parables narrated.  This is inimical to Kafka where the problem, of course, is precisely that there is no "outside" to his stories, no stance from which the meaning of the text can be comfortably explicated -- Kafka makes this clear in his story "In the Penal Colony" in which the dying convict tries to interpret the indictment inscribed in his flesh with piercing needles:  there is literally no place from which to observe the text that is being written into the doomed man's body.  Second, Welles' believes in the force of character, in the great man who shapes the destinies of others to his will -- we see this in all of Welles' films from Citizen Kane to his Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil and, at last, to Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.  Kafka's works are, in fact, a critique of the notion of the great man -- his characters alternate between the most abject degradation and fantasies of universe-changing grandiosity, but, ultimately, no one is superior to the nightmarish situation in which they find themselves.  Josef K. fancies himself the center of a vast judicial universe, an object of intense interest by all around him, and, yet, in the end of the book, he is frog-marched to a ash-heap and stabbed to death by two faceless, minor administrators, perishing "wie ein Hund" ("like a dog").  Accordingly, Kafka's guerilla war on the world, conducted as a series of literary ambushes, is exactly opposite to Welles' grandiosity.  Kafka was painfully thin; Welles was very fat. 

Nonetheless, The Trial is an impressive production and successful in some respect.  After a lengthy initial scene in Josef K's apartment in which the hapless protagonist is interrogated by a sinister government officials, the film's setting shifts to a vast and decrepit maze of corridors and chambers either associated with K's workplace or the courts.  The film is, more or less, updated to the present-day, seemingly set in some middle-European country still badly ravaged by war -- this gives rise to one of the film's few jokes:  Josef K. has records and a phonograph in his apartment and, anxious to persuade the officials that he doesn't have any pornography in his rooms, he tells them to search everything including, with a slip of the tongue, the "records and the pornograph."  The film is shot in high-contrast black and white, images with stabbing points of light -- when the hero flees down corridors made from decomposing lathe, light streams in through breaches in the wall creating a strobe effect.  The film is full of leering faces, people peering through peepholes, and, then, sudden cuts to remote shots dwarfing the figures against the ramshackle decomposing interior landscapes in which the movie was made -- in appearance, the film is like Fellini without the joi de vivre.  Josef K's travels are bracketed by shots of him climbing or descending vertiginous stairways that are filmed against great vaults and huge arched dungeon-like chambers, images that imitate Piranesi's I Carcieri.   Welles' generally stays reasonably close to Kafka's narrative.  As a result, the movie shares the defects of its source -- it seems overlong, immensely repetitive, a slow-motion chase through a haunted fun-house as Josef K., forever seeking information about his enigmatic case, pursues court officials and is, himself, pursued  by various sexually rapacious and obscurely motivated females, among them, in the film, Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider.  It's a running joke that the hysterical and puny-looking Josef K. (played by Anthony Perkins, a homosexual) is intensely attractive to every woman that he encounters -- indeed, at the end of the film he is pursued like Ringo Starr by mobs of ragged-looking 8th grade girls.  Welles' grandiosity is often on display:  Josef K. works in a hockey-arena-sized room with hundreds and hundreds of identical desks where anonymous men and women pound away at identical typewriters (it's an effect borrowed from King Vidor's expressionistic The Crowd made in 1928); when a boy leads K through a unprepossessing door into a courtroom, the hero encounters three or four-thousand men, all clad in dark boxy suits like apparatchiks of the Communist party piled up to the ceiling on metal bleachers; departing from the Court,  K. walks down vast terraces of marble steps passing by colossal statues of Greek legislators.  There are long scenes involving vaguely menacing harangues -- most notably an extended scene with Akim Tamiroff as a defendant who coyly admits to K that he has more than one advocate, as many "as four or five."  Crowds of petitioners stand as motionless as statues in dilapidated galleries awaiting summons to the court.  Most of the petitioners are elderly with two or three days growth of beard -- they look like old winos.  At the end of the film, in the confrontation in the cathedral, K. defies the mysterious judicial system in which he is entrapped and suggests that if he were not complicit with the shadowy tribunal, if he were not obsessed by its workings and agreeable to be bound by its dictates it would have no power over him.  I'm not sure that these speeches are in Kafka -- however, this is surely every readers ultimate response to Josef K's plight and Welles embodies this notion in the final scene.  Two executioners accost K. and haul him out to an ugly, jagged quarry at the edge of town.  They extract a ceremonial knife from a breast pocket, force K to lie like a sacrificial lamb among the broken rocks, but, then, seem to insist that he knife himself to death.  (This latter command -- that K. kill himself is completely alien to Kafka; for better or worse, Kafka believes that there are enigmatic, even, divine external forces that have the power to destroy men.)  K. refuses and the henchmen flee.  One of them tosses a cartoon-style bundle of dynamite with a flaming fuse into the pit where K. is lying.  K. either throws the dynamite back at them or is destroyed himself when bomb explodes -- the film is studiously ambiguous on this point.  The final shot freezes the bomb-blast as kind of luminous mushroom cloud and, as in The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles identifies the cast verbally over an image of a projector casting images on a wall illustrative of the parable "Before the Law".  This ending is false to Kafka but, I think, true to the way a reader experiences The Trial -- after a hundred or so pages, the reader is whispering to Josef K. that he should just opt out of the system, since, it seems, that nothing about it makes sense and since K's involvement is, more or less, voluntary.  Welles appears in the film as a jowly and sinister advocate, always reclining in bed and, almost, inert, until suddenly he appears in a kind of majesty upright and domineering at the end of the film.  The conclusion of the movie, almost optimistic in comparison to Kafka's horrific final paragraph, embodies Welles' weird exuberance -- even when things are at their worst, Welles insists on a kind of wild, fierce energy:  the effect is not exactly joyful, but it is certainly not despairing either. 

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