Criterion Review: THE TRIAL

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn’t exist.

Orson Welles’ staggering The Trial enters the Criterion Collection this week with a 4K UHD release as worthy of deep exploration as the film itself. 

In one of the set’s supplements, Filming “The Trial”, Welles conducts a lengthy Q&A session at the University of Southern California. He fields questions from the mundane (“how much did the film cost?”) to the deeply personal and philosophical (talking about whether or not he believes in the existence of evil in the world). He proves to be the ultimate raconteur, mixing thoughtful answers with casual humor. Even the question about the budget, arguably the least interesting Q&A topic, elicits a compelling answer when Welles says he spent $80,000 of his own money and that he didn’t actually make anything on The Trial. One thing that comes up a couple times here and elsewhere throughout the release is Welles’ claim that The Trial is his best film. True or not, The Trial is as rewatchable and dense as anything Welles produced. 

Beginning with one of the best opening sequences you’ll ever see, the film kicks off with the literal and figurative awakening of Josef K. (played by Anthony Perkins) as he is arrested for unnamed reasons. In a lengthy, circuitous conversation that grows increasingly harrowing, K finds himself entering a hellish descent with no escape. Throughout the picture K impotently rages against the bureaucratic machinery that can, and will, swallow up anybody at any time it so desires. In the Q&A, Welles says “I see monstrous bureaucracy as the villain of the piece,” and the cynicism inherent in that statement trickles down to the people that keep the machine running. The metaphor of a man waking up and immediately being subsumed is full of so much righteous anger that it practically pulsates through the screen. That verve drives K forward, propelling him deeper and deeper into a man made Hell from which there is only one escape. 

By his own account, K is a rule follower, punching in, doing his work, punching out, then going to sleep in order to do it all over again. Early in the film K fondly describes the systemic hoops in place to keep the average person from getting to him. Like the average person he is, K is perfectly content getting along just to get along. Once he finds himself on the opposite side of that dynamic, he becomes a leper. K talks a lot throughout the film about following the rules, guidelines, procedures, and protocols, be it himself or other people. The futility of passivity has turned K, and us, into suckers dangling over the steels jaws of “the system.” The joke it of all being that we’ve been told all along that systems like the government or justice are in place to protect us and bring some sense of order to the world, when really the main purpose of “the system” is self-preservation.

Perkins is tremendous in the film, his tall and gangly body oozing with unease at all times. He plays K as a ball of nerves, and each revelation, conversation, and twist of the plot just knots him up even more. Clarity only brings more confusion and Perkins’ physicality is a perfect vessel for this. K doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere he goes, often literally. Welles frames K so that he towers over nearly everyone he encounters. Welles also uses tighter shots with K’s head nearly at the top of the frame, as if it’s closing in on him. In wider shots, K feels like a man floating through space. Both shots create a claustrophobic feeling. Welles simultaneously emphasizes the idea it’s impossible for K to fit in anywhere or exert any control over his situation. When K walks through never ending rooms or stands in the towering courtroom, he may as well be floating through space or the ocean.

I’ve seen The Trial a handful of times over the last couple weeks as I’ve tried to get my head around it to find something unique to say. The deeper into the movie I go, the more my head spins. That’s meant as a compliment, because Welles packs so much into the film that you can watch, examine, and excavate it as much as you want and still feel like you’re just scratching the surface. Being in over your skis with regard to The Trial practically makes it an interactive experience. 

For those wanting to fully immerse themselves in the experience of The Trail, Criterion is happy to oblige. The highlight of the special features is the aforementioned Q&A, recorded in 1981, 20 years after the film’s release. The perspective Welles has on the film, adapting (and altering) Franz Kafka’s novel, and filmmaking in general is invaluable. The commentary track by Welles’ scholar Jospeh McBride is quite academic in terms of analysis and insight. As someone who spent a great deal of time with Welles, McBride only brings a uniquely personal perspective to him commentary. Rounding out the supplements are a pair of interviews with Welles, DP Edmond Richard, and actor Jeanne Moreau, as well as an essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem.

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