Despite his debut feature film Citizen Kane (1941) consistently appearing in lists as one of the best films of all time, Orson Welles has said that his personal favourite of the films that he directed was The Trial. It has been fully restored and released on Blu-ray so we now have the opportunity to discover whether it really is worthy of its director’s enthusiasm. Based upon the novel by Franz Kafka, the work maintains an integrity and fascination that is impossible to ignore. A troublesome and confrontational film that has the viewer relating to individual scenes and characters but not entirely confronting the greater purpose, The Trial finds an indefinable middle ground between narrative and non-narrative cinema.
Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) has some issues with his life. He is about to go on trial, something that the authoritarians who confront both his physical and mental status in his own space are keen to assert, but they are not so clear about describing the specifics of the criminal activities he is alleged to have been involved in. It could be anything, even alliteration, it seems. K has to balance his life between his job, his apartment and the criminal charges about which he has no clear concept but whose outcome, if proven, will be made apparent to him. Eventually. He has an advocate (Welles) who is unlikely to be entirely helpful. Meanwhile the rest of his life is a convoluted misanthropy of confusion.
A plot synopsis is really unnecessary when discussing The Trial, but this is, of course, the point. Welles initially sets his film in K’s residence but then expands the wider story after the first act – developing from a theatrical approach to dialogue and character development that is verging on the claustrophobic (as it also seems to K), to bring the greater legal implications – or not – of his case to the fore. The initial act helps place his situation into context, but the film then evolves from character based immersion into surrealism and a fascism that also – paradoxically – reflects its apparent normality. The Trial progresses from staged cinema to film as art, something that seems evolutionary to the characters, the audience and perhaps even the production, creating a world that is artistically rendered and truly cinematic.
The Trial succeeds on so many levels. Right from the very opening, Anthony Perkins is entirely believable as K – the character that the audience has to identify with, and sympathise with in his struggle against authority. The strong use of set design extends throughout the film as K finds himself removed from work and apartment and into a wider outside world. Once the film has played out its initial act, the sets are startlingly reminiscent of Bauhaus and cubist designs even as they look to the fascism of corporate – or communist – future. The Trial’s influence on films such as Minority Report (2002) and Brazil (1985) cannot be ignored.
Welcome additions to this release include a deleted scene with what is verging on an Anthony Perkins dance number as he leaps across row-upon-row of desks, and also a number of documentaries and contemporaneous interviews that really place the film into perspective. Essential viewing, The Trial is gloriously cinematic and thoroughly bizarre. It is worthy of its (film) creator’s own declaration and strongly recommended whether your political views are predominantly right wing, left wing or no wing…