Saturday Night Cinema: The Trial (1963)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic, the Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial,  is dedicated to 3-Star General Michael Flynn.

General Flynn Appeals for an End to a ‘Kafkaesque Nightmare’

The Trial is the best film I have ever made,” Orson Welles told the BBC in a 1962 interview. While that might not be quite true — Welles already had Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Othello, and Touch of Evil on his resume — his free-form adaptation of Franz Kafka’s posthumously published 1925 novel is an extraordinary work that has only been increasing in critical stature since its 1962 release. The absurdist drama now can be seen in a new restoration playing September 1¬–7 as part of a two-movie Film Forum tribute to Jeanne Moreau that also includes Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels; Moreau passed away on July 31 at the age of eighty-nine. Welles reordered the narrative and changed the ending in telling Kafka’s harrowing tale of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), a low-level bureaucrat who suddenly finds himself in the midst of a mysterious existential ordeal, under arrest for an unnamed crime and facing an unknown fate. Welles begins the film with Kafka’s “Before the Law” parable, told by the auteur over “pin-screen animation” by Alexander Alexeïeff and Claire Parker. Later, Welles, as Albert Hastler, known as the Advocate, repeats the story to Josef, confirming that Welles the filmmaker is fully in control, serving as judge, jury, and executioner of everything we see and hear — and we indeed hear a lot of Welles, who dubbed the voices for many of the characters himself. At the end of the opening parable, Welles explains, “’Tis been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream . . . of a nightmare,” and the camera then focuses in on Josef in bed, where he’s about to be roused and placed under arrest. (more)

Jameson Law Library Movie review: The Trial opens with Joseph K, an everyman character, waking up at home. Two policemen come to his apartment and tell him he is under arrest, but they cannot tell him what he is charged with. They do not take him into custody. He talks to his neighbors, he goes to work, and everyone seems to know he has committed a crime but all have different ideas about what his crime is. The two policemen later return and take him to a courtroom for his trial. Instead of making everything clear, this begins a bizarre journey through a nightmare world of the law gone mad.

Many critics have called this “a masterpiece… the best film ever made about the law.” Orson Welles said in a BBC interview that it was “…the best film I ever made,” and many Orson Welles aficionados agree. However, just as many critics have called it “boring… an agonizing experience.” People have very strong positive or negative reactions to the film without much middle ground. You either love it or hate it. It’s either a masterpiece or a mess. Reactions to the film probably say more about the individual’s psychology than they do about the film itself. As for me, put me on the side of “disturbing masterpiece.”

 

This is not an easy film to watch. There is no straightforward plot. Instead, it is a series of surreal, nightmarish sequences blended together. This is the law as allegory. This is the emotional landscape of someone caught up in the process of the law and not understanding what’s happening. This is the law on steroids in the Twilight Zone.

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