The Trial (1963)

Viewed May 4th


In this Orson Welles adaptation of a Frank Kafka novel, the protagonist Josef K wanders through a bleak bureaucratic dreamscape, trying to understand why he's been put under arrest. 

At one point during my screening of The Trial, someone in the audience began to snore and then suddenly woke up. Others began chuckling. It was funny not just because snoring is funny but because the man woke up to this exceedingly dreamlike film. From the outset, the opening narration (voiced by Welles himself) explicitly tell us that "the logic of this story is the logic of dream...of a nightmare." And he's right. It's not a film about dream logic, it  is dream logic. Hitchcock's Psycho, released just a few years earlier in similarly stark black and white, is in dialogue with the unconscious and dream states, but it's always so firmly controlled that it circumnavigates the unreason of a real dream. It's about dreams and nightmares. The Trial, though, is a dream. Which makes it a challenging but potentially fascinating viewing--depending on your taste for this type of thing. 

There are plenty of wilder, looser, and more surreal films that are described as dream-like, but they aren't dream-like in the uncanny way that The Trial is. Through Anthony Perkins' commitment to his role, Welles' powerful yet economic use of the camera, Kafka's weaving narrative, and the commitment of all involved to a particular micro logic within each scene...we aren't bounced out of this world for being too crazy or cued to read it as signifying dreaminess. Again, it is dreaminess and through a lot of cinematic skill we are absorbed into this dream. One of most haunting aspects of the film, is the casting of Perkins, still relatively fresh off of his iconic performance as Norman Bates in Psycho. Welles directs him to act as a version of Bates, with the same sexual ambiguity, the same neurotic niceties, the same darkness in his intelligent eyes. There's an uncanny doubling that happens; it registers on an unconscious level alongside other patterns and recurrences in order to create a nightmarishly repetitive spiral into the void. It's one of the most misunderstood, under-appreciated films of the 20th century and one of the high points of Welles' fractured career.