Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’ Is a Study in Transcendental Sociology

In Orson Welles
transcendental rendering of Kafka’s‘The Trial, he sees Josef K. not as a sheepish victim but as complicit in his own convoluted fate.

At first glance, The Trial (1962) seems the perfect vessel for Orson Welles’ expressionistic style. Franz Kafka’s tale of a mid-level functionary lost in the absurdist language of a dwarfing bureaucracy surely provides Welles ample opportunity for skewed perspectives, byzantine chiaroscuro, alienating set designs, and mannerist, labyrinthine dialogue. But The Trial —Welles’ favorite among his own films — is no empty exercise in stylistics, and an equation between Welles’ expressionism and Kafka’s is not merely superficial but wrongheaded.

From Citizen Kane (1941) and Mr. Arkadin (1955) to Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), Welles repeatedly uses expressionist devices to delve into heroic psychology and hubris, exteriorizing the angst of cryptic individuals in the convoluted spaces that constitute their environments. Kafka’s expressionism, however, was never strictly psychological in the individualistic sense. To be sure, social and sexual neuroses abound in Kafka’s output, as we know from biographical critics who’ve scrutinized his domineering father, obsessive relationships with women, Jewish persecutions, conjectured homosexuality, and other psychoanalytic bugbears.

Transcending mere reflections of personal anxiety, however, Kafka’s expressionism is more properly “sociological,” focusing on the confounding structures of post-bureaucratic life. The Trial, in particular, “expresses” not the expressionism familiar from Weimar Caligarism, but the alienating social structures described by Max Weber’s Economy and Society, which envisaged a bureaucratic language so secretive that it becomes impenetrable not merely to laymen but to the bureaucrats’ own superiors, thereby inhibiting centralized control and facilitating the bureaucrats’ corrupted autonomy.

It is thus to Welles’ eternal credit that he is one of the few filmmakers — perhaps the only one — who got Kafka right. Welles’ insights into Kafka’s sociology, beginning with his correct interpretation of the arrogant character of Josef K., often get lost in The Trial’s striking visuality, Welles’ own discouragement of “pretentious” intellectual analysis, and the distraction of Welles’ celebrity. Welles rightly sees Josef K. not as a sheepish victim but as complicit in his own convoluted fate, rendering The Trial not a stylized victimology (as are so many film adaptations of Kafka) but a study in the individual’s unwitting participation in his own destruction.

Representing Josef K. as a longstanding part of the unfeeling bureaucracy rather than a persecuted outsider, Welles puts forth a sociological understanding of Kafka that sees individuals and societies as mutually constructing (rather than exclusive) influences. In this sense, The Trial, for all its apparent subjectivism, is no less sociological than the allegedly “objective” documentaries of Frederick Wiseman or Barbara Koppel.

Welles’ cold insights into the architectonics of The Trial are worth stressing because they mark a thematic departure from the rest of his output (with the possible exception of F for Fake [1973]). Welles, after all, is usually a dark romanticist, not a detached observer. Though Welles and Kafka are both consummate composers of labyrinthine worlds, in Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin, and Touch of Evil (1958), Welles ultimately proffers the keys to the labyrinth’s secrets, succumbing to the desire for narrative closure.

Kafka, particularly in The Trial, denies us the keys to the gateway or claims they never existed. (By comparison, Citizen Kane’s revelation of Rosebud is unforgivably sentimental.) In his creation of a deliberately fractured, unclosed world, Kafka becomes both a composer and an anti-composer, taking us so far deep into the labyrinth that we never glimpse the larger composition as a whole.

Presumably, Kafka’s society never even exists as a totalized entity, for its parts, all alienated from one other, inhibit any sense of integrity. Kafka thus presents not doomed individuals disconnected from society but a masochistic, fractured society irretrievably alienated from itself—a social alienation that, when passed down to and embodied by the masochistic society’s individual members, has the inevitable appearance of persecution.

This self-alienated, self-sickening world is very much reflected in Welles’ vision. Placing Josef K. in alternately monumental and claustrophobic sets, Welles shrinks and constricts his hero and, consistent with Kafka’s text, literally nauseates him as Josef K. repeatedly gasps for air in the bureaucracy’s breathless attics and misplaced offices. As in Kafka, the geography of the bureaucracy is stochastic: the harshly lit spaces in which Josef K. loses himself are at once randomly placed, and the predictable arrangements of an irrational, circuitous system. The secretive closet in which a leather-clad sadist whips corrupt officials happens to be located in Josef K.’s office building — because it was Josef K. who lodged the complaint against them.

Similarly, the painter Tintorelli’s claustrophobic slotted corridor—imagined by Welles in a mad tracking shot often plagiarized by lesser directors—has no logical spatial connection to his tiny studio. The bureaucracy’s arbitrary designs, in which corridors regularly shrink into deformed corners and offices are somehow connected by fleeting bureaucratic wormholes, suggests the spatial illogic of Lewis Carroll, here made into universal law.

Yet the skewed perspectives exist objectively, apart from Josef K.’s experience. Office workers even caution Josef K. that “everyone” is nauseated in the bureaucratic depths at first and that the queasiness takes some getting used to. Here, the existential nausea Sartre ascribes to the individual’s moral confrontation with the objective world becomes the realization that free will is the greatest delusion of all, for no one can exist beyond the bureaucracy.

Interestingly, Welles’ long shots only intensify the overwhelming nausea, presenting great spaces and denying characters any escape. The long tracking shots that see Josef K. fleeing the thousand bureaus of the bureaucracy outdo any image of modern alienation in René Clair’s À Nous la Liberté (1931), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or countless other filmic engagements of the Kafkaesque. Yet the tracking shots never climax in revelation, as does the famous final shot of Citizen Kane —ultimately, a system alienated to the point of nihilism can only reveal its nothingness.

At the ever-shifting center of Welles’ labyrinth is Anthony Perkins, who embodies Josef K. not as an anonymous cog in an unforgiving machine but as a semi-witting servant of the system. Coming off the success of Psycho (1960), the smug Perkins was not unanimously praised as Josef K., but Welles correctly defended his casting decision: “I think everybody has an idea of Josef K. as some kind of little Woody Allen. That’s who they think Josef K. is. But it’s very clearly stated in the book that he is a young executive on his way up” according to The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles by Chuck Berg.

Indeed, Josef K. is hardly reducible to a universal victim. Though behind Kafka’s bureaucracy lurks Gogol’s officialdom, Josef K. is no Akaky Akakievich, the nebbish copyist of The Overcoat who suffers from a tragic deficit of originality. Nor is Josef K. an Eternal Jew or the subaltern insect of The Metamorphosis. This is the misunderstanding of Kafka that Woody Allen tenders in the tepid Shadows and Fog (1992), which frames Kafka’s “legalist” persecutions as a too-literal dream of Jewish angst, embodied by Allen’s trademark paranoia.

But in The Trial, Josef K. is not a simple proxy for Kafka’s Jewishness; believing in his righteousness and invulnerability, he mocks the irrationality of a system that becomes apparent only when it finally oppresses him. However, the system’s self-destructions happen so slowly and invisibly that he is inclined to see them as mere destructions of distant others, not of eventual selves.

Josef K.’s complicity in the system that ultimately murders him is no small point. His conceitedness blinds him to his own sense of entitlement, especially when he steals away the Advocate’s nurse, Leni, right from under his nose and acts contemptuously toward the servile defendant Block (played in the film by an especially pathetic Akim Tamirrof), whom Josef K. sees as a social inferior. Josef K. is utterly convinced of his superiority to a blatantly corrupt, irrational system, yet fails to see that his own bureaucratic position has rendered him equally heartless. He learns only too late that the system is a cannibalistic leviathan that, like Goya’s fearful Saturn, consumes its children to prevent a revolt that is forever dreaded but rarely actual.

At the outset of Josef K.’s ordeal, it’s easy for him to become overconfident. The two government thugs who (wrongly?) interrogate him in the opening scene are corrupt both ethically (they want bribes) and linguistically (their circular arguments are nonsensical). Welles actually improves on Kafka in this opening scene, inserting malapropisms into the dialogue and making the thugs semiliterate buffoons.

Welles’ two key moments of wordplay, not in Kafka, are revealing. In the first, Josef K., momentarily confused by the thugs’ doubletalk, says “pornograph” instead of phonograph, foreshadowing the primitive lasciviousness Josef K. discovers among mid-level officials who kidnap young girls and judges who secret erotic photos in the leaves of law books. In the second instance, Josef K. debates the bumbling agents’ use of the term “ovular” (as opposed to “oval”), which Josef K. insists is not an actual word. On the apparent level, Josef K.’s argument with the thugs is a linguistic farce that reveals the bureaucracy’s reduction of language to Ionescoan nonsense, unconnected to reality.

On a deeper level, Welles’ choice of the particular word “ovular” (of all words) is suspicious: we can assume that the word itself signifies a system corrupt even in its own circularity (it is only a deformed oval, not a perfect circle). Yet Josef K.’s behaviors are themselves corruptedly circular, as he coldly and mechanically proceeds in his abusive routines with women, regardless of the danger it causes him.

Refusing to play by the system’s unplayable rules, K’s sense of entitlement soon alienates his band of supporters, particularly the Advocate (played by Welles in a role intended for Jackie Gleason), whose mistress Josef K. quickly steals. Eventually, Josef K. grasps the system’s futility when he meets the well-connected court painter Tintorelli (theater director William Chappell in a brittle comic performance), who ironically immortalizes the images of unseen officials.

In this scene, Welles attempts to expediently condense the brilliantly convoluted legal procedures described in the novel. Tintorelli tells Josef K. his legal case—for which no crime has ever been registered—has three possible legal outcomes: “actual acquittal,” which never happens in reality and occurs only in myth; “apparent acquittal,” in which the defendant is provisionally found not guilty but could be subject to continual and unannounced prosecutions in the future; and “protraction,” in which the trial, through legal machinations, is distended indefinitely, perpetually, such that the trial effectively becomes one’s life.

In a system in which original innocence is a distant myth and acquittal only a temporary respite from a perpetual state of unnamed guilt, indefinite “protraction” is the best option. As one’s eternally protracted legal contest becomes indistinguishable from the span of one’s own life, the work’s original German title, Der Prozess, takes on a more existential cast. In Josef K.’s subsequent encounter with a priest in a ghostly cathedral (greatly trimmed in Welles’ film), he finally understands the twisted logic of the process, which irrationally melds present and future, cause and effect. “The judgment isn’t simply delivered at some point… the proceedings gradually merge into the judgment,” the priest tells him.

The notion of upsetting causality is also reflected in one of Josef K.’s earlier dialogues with Tintorelli. When Josef K. inquires about the significance of one of his enigmatic paintings, Tintorelli explains, “It’s actually Justice and the goddess of victory in one.” Josef K. replies, “[T]hat’s a poor combination, for Justice must remain at rest, otherwise the scales sway and no judgment is possible.”

This is precisely the point: just as objective justice is downgraded to mere victory, so does the legal process become a protracted judgment whose truth never arrives. Victory, if it is not a myth like innocence, becomes the system’s special province, and the individual’s only freedom is the manner in which he accepts his masochistic fate.

While Tintorelli’s calculating (if dispiriting) legal advice constitutes a large section of Kafka’s novel, Welles compresses the speech into a single, nervously delivered dialogue that can be difficult to follow without the text. However, Welles compensates for this potential thematic loss by turning Kafka’s allegory of the doorkeeper into an animated pin-screen prologue, establishing from the outset the inescapability of Josef K.’s fate.

In the novel, the priest, believing Josef K. is deceiving himself by searching for answers beyond the Law, relates the doorkeeper myth to him shortly before his execution. Ostensibly, the myth warns members of the system about the dangers of self-deception, but to more objective ears its moral is an existential injustice. “Before the Law stands a doorkeeper,” the story begins. “A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be able to enter later. ‘It’s possible,’ says the doorkeeper, but not now.’”

The doorkeeper warns the countryman that three even more powerful (if unglimpsed) guards lie beyond him—the impenetrable layers of the bureaucracy. The man, as meek as the poor defendant Block, waits forever, until his death, until the gatekeeper closes the door meant only for him, but which he can never enter.

The allegory of endless, futile waiting has since become a familiar existentialist trope, but unlike Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Kafka’s “temporal” allegory signifies not a godless denial of agency but a potential agency endlessly deferred by worldly authority. By moving the myth of the gatekeeper to the film’s abstracted prologue, Welles places the allegory outside the text proper, where it becomes a loop as circular and repetitious as the labyrinths of the Law it precedes.

In the film, Josef K. hears a curtailed version of this myth of passivity from Welles’ domineering advocate, not the sympathetic priest, giving Josef K.’s subsequent protest added weight. In both Welles and Kafka, Josef K. is obviously right to criticize a myth that is not only irrational (like all myths) but unintelligible. To say that the door is “meant” for the poor man only means it is intended to ensnare him in a masochistic futility. The bureaucracy, which enforces passivity, then blames the man for being too passive.

The system ultimately follows the letter rather than the spirit of the Law because the Law has only letters and no spirit. Without any underlying humanity to oppose, the unintelligible Law is the perfect authority—it does not need to defang or culturally appropriate charismatic transgressors because it can never be transgressed. Even attempts at transgression become impossible, because in an illegible system prospective rebels would have no idea what rules should be transgressed. Because the system needn’t swallow or commodify its opponents, it is not capitalist in nature, but neither is its liquidation of the individual fascistic, for it lacks fascism’s charismatic leadership and unification of the popular spirit.

It’s rather something like an “oligarchic anarchism” (for lack of a better paradox), as it holds social hierarchies in a quivering balance slightly disorienting to the system’s own workings but cosmically disorienting to its constituent, individual members.

Though I believe The Trial presents a masochistic worldview equally oligarchic and anarchistic, it is still common to see Kafka as a seer of more generic forms of 20th century totalitarianism. In a superficial, uninformed piece of provocation in this year’s July/August issue of The Atlantic, Josef Epstein attempts to deflate Kafka’s cachet by suggesting that appreciations of Kafka depend mainly on the charity of psychoanalytic criticism, whose model of top-down Oedipal control presumably mirrors totalitarianism. Epstein’s claim that without “belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and originality” is patently ridiculous, especially as most contemporary critics have moved well beyond the techniques of psychoanalysis and biography. (Only in the cyclical failure of mankind’s agency is The Trial Freudian.)

More pertinent to this discussion, however, is Epstein’s bland summation, presumably meant to be his least controversial statement: “Kafka is credited with prophetic powers, because he predicted, through his novels The Trial and The Castle, the totalitarian regimes that arose after his death, especially that of the Soviet Union, with its arbitrary, insane, [and] crushing … bureaucratic apparatus for killing.”

Obviously, this point is not entirely misguided. Indeed, in the case of Welles’ film, it is impossible not to see the wasteland of cavernous, brutalist architecture as Soviet bloc despair, and if Kafka’s black-and-white labyrinth denies any resolution, so did the Cold War stalemate that shaped the era of Welles’ vision. But such a literalistic view of history inevitably leads to a reduction of Kafka’s existentialism. Yes, The Trial proposes a bureaucracy that, like Stalinism, sacrifices its young not to the irrationality of a god but to the irrationality of its own system.

Kafka’s real insight, however, is not that systems of power are “arbitrary, insane, and crushing”—this is not much of an insight, after all—but that allegedly “rational” structures (like bureaucracy) can facilitate irrational violence by fostering a widespread social masochism, without engaging in overt fascism or deferring to the banality of evil.

In the final scene of Kafka’s novel, Josef K. is visited by his two executioners after his few avenues for justice turn out to be dead ends. When they take him to a ditch, lay him flat, and slice him open with a knife, he surrenders to the sacrifice passively. On the one hand, he has finally become another Block, meekly submitting himself before the gate of death because there is no gate of justice.

If one believes Camus’ interpretation in The Myth of Sisyphus, however, in Josef K.’s passivity we should detect a sliver of freedom, or at least a release that takes on the transcendental cast of a religious ascetic. Nevertheless, it may be an empty speculation for Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus to claim that “the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive… hope becomes”, and likely Camus overstates the furtive freedom that Josef K. spirits away from his assassins.

Though Kafka emphasizes Josef K.’s slow transformation from arrogance to futility, Welles’ version lends additional credence to Camus’ view of a final, secret rebellion. As he told interviewer Peter Bogdanovich, Welles could not stomach seeing Josef K. sacrifice himself so passively in the wake of the Holocaust.

If the Holocaust rendered tragedy moot, the ending of The Trial had to become tragicomic. In the film, Josef K.’s two executioners become not stoic professionals but panicky buffoons unable to light their deadly bundle of dynamite. K. laughs at them incredulously, mocking not only their incompetence but their ignorance—Josef K. finally understands that he has long been part of the system, but his executioners (who will one day be executed themselves) remain oblivious. Through an absurdity more comic than Camus’, Josef K. is finally released, and in this more transcendental rendering of Kafka’s text, Josef K. does seems to achieve the “sterile and conquering lucidity” that Camus ascribes to Nietzschean self-overcoming.

Despite the specter of the Holocaust—acknowledged by Welles in a surreal street scene populated by petrified prisoners with numbered signs around their necks—the film cannot be reduced to a distinct political allegory, just as Kafka cannot be reduced to a prophet of totalitarianism. In his interviews with Bogdanovich, however, Welles himself belatedly realized that The Trial’s final image might have inadvertently cheapened Kafka’s text with an expedient, unintentional metaphor.

When Bogdanovich suggests to Welles that the assassins’ dynamite creates a plume of smoke resembling a mushroom cloud, Welles insists that the image “isn’t an atom bomb… It was a real mistake… it didn’t register with me as an atom bomb,” Welles continues, before admitting that such an ambiguous, loaded image is “bad [visual] rhetoric.”

Of course, we cannot blame Welles for fading out on the explosion, for in our collective consciousness we’ve inescapably come to equate the Kafkaesque with negation and the apocalyptic.

But Josef K. is not entirely negative, even if he must die young. Though Josef K. hasn’t an old age that will haunt him (as do Welles’ Kane and Falstaff) nor a past to run from (as do Mr. Arkadin and the war criminal of The Stranger), Welles nevertheless grants him a final fugitive laugh, a transcendental gesture Kafka buries invisibly in Josef K.’s soul.