Citizen Kane is so often lauded for the simple fact that never before had a director had so much creative control on a project and exercised it in such an unprecedented fashion, especially given the state of affairs in the Hollywood studio system. It’s an enigma, a stunning debut and really an astounding miracle where all things aligned for an instant of so-called perfection.
But some people might assume Welles dropped off the face of the map, only to resurface as a rotund larger than life personality, hardly a cinematic auteur. And it is true, after that initial opportunity, he chased after freedom of artistic expression rather unsuccessfully. That does mean he never found it. Not by a long shot.
The Trial is indisputable evidence of that. It’s greatly underviewed and that really is a shame, because within its frame you see the glimpses of that same master, perhaps even more mature than he ever was in Kane.
The story grounds itself in the absurdist prose of Franz Kafka with Orson Welles delivering the opening narration in the form of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” setting the groundwork for the rest of the narrative. Anthony Perkins works seamlessly as Josef K. a tentative man set adrift in a world where he has been arrested and put on trial for a crime that is never revealed to him. He fluctuates easily between indignation and resigned timidity.
At first glance The Trial is a bare-boned parable, feeling gaunt and cavernous with empty sets and even emptier words. Everyone Josef meets talks him in circles, tirelessly — never leading to any significant conclusion, only the next diversion in his journey.
There are some interludes in the film that could be characterized as dull, especially as we are getting acclimated to this story line, or more precisely coming to grips with the fact that The Trial is not so much about story. Kafka revels in the absurd rather than convention and Welles uses that surrealist absurdity as a vehicle for his own endeavors as a director.
Welles had his hands tied with lack of financial capital leading to only an abandoned railway station to work with, and he in turns transforms the space into a gloriously visual labyrinth. In his case limitations only meant further inspiration. In fact, his camera feels ever more inventive and engaging wherever it takes us within this surrealistic space. Large landscapes of dizzying scope mixed with confined, claustrophobic crevices. Further blanketed in light, utilizing a much simpler (as well as cheaper) black and white to develop an ever intricate gradation of field mingled with fascinating angles. These alone take a relatively bare scene and dress them up into something that is entrancing.
More than once, including the film’s final moments as Josef looks to be headed towards death, it’s easy to be mesmerized because there are no clear narrative distinctions. Characters function as Kafka characters should, and Welles does the rest if you only give him your attention.
If The Trial is a hodgepodge of talent, with the presence of Americans Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins, international sirens Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli and Romy Schneider, with European backing and source material from Kafka, then it is a thoroughly intriguing marriage all the same. This film is perhaps the greatest adaptation of the work of Kafka and not due necessarily to its faithfulness to its source material, but because it displays an unmistakably Wellesian vision. The cyclical nature of the legal system pales in comparison with the fascination that comes with watching the continual creativity that is projected up on the screen — this is a hollow dream of a film.
So Orson Welles did get his artistic freedom, complete with a few surprising moments of cursing, international talent and meager funding that nevertheless gave him what he so desired. Welles ends the film with more narration and instead of running end credits he opts to list off all the names of his players. While the final intonations of his voice leave no doubt that this is his creation first and last, it also suggests that this is a personal film. Something outside of the realm of conventional Hollywood, but still very much worthwhile, even if it’s due mostly to form over content.