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Orson Welles’s 1962 film The Trial presents, with artistic use of the motion picture medium, a story of an innocent man wrongly accused by a domineering, vast and enigmatic bureaucratic state. The innocent man is Joseph K., a lowly file clerk at an undisclosed center of business in an undisclosed part of the civilized world.


At the early waking morning hours of his work day, he is confronted by several detectives, alerted of the accusation against him and intensely questioned. Mr. K. politely insists that he is given more details regarding his transgression. The detectives ignore his requests and continue their interrogation. He knows he has committed no crime but he is assumed guilty. The rest of the film follows Mr. K.’s journey into the various departments and proceedings of his state’s legal system to uncover the reasoning behind this baffling branding.

Shot in black and white while utilizing a variety of camera angles and lighting set-ups adjacent to the emotion of each sequence, these artistic choices create an atmosphere in that convey the unrestrained paranoia and alienation of the story. The first sequence in particular, the invasion of Mr. K.’s room by the detectives early in the morning, is an excellent example of how well the director is able to, through abrupt editing, claustrophobic blocking and set design, capture the mental state of the protagonist.


The sequence begins with a close-up of a sleeping Mr. K. The roundness and organic contours of his face are a stark contrast to the rest of the sequence, as well as the whole film. Roused disconcertingly from the comfortable oblivion of sleep, Mr. K. is immediately thrust into the waking reality. His apartment room seems designed to accommodate these sorts of impersonal encounters. There are doors on nearly all sides of the apartment. One of them leads into the room of one of the next-door tenants. The voices of the detective by Mr. K.’s bedside are monotone and incessant. The questions are rapidly fired even as he gets dressed and prepares to properly confront the situation.


A wide-angle composition is used to illustrate the closed-in quality of Mr. K.’s apartment room. An indignant Mr. K., determined to request the help of the next-door tenant, finally leaves his room only to find a group of detectives already searching the other room as well. The cut to this reveal is quick and the detectives, when shown, immediately look up at Mr. K. in a complete 180-degree reverse shot. The effect is jarring but fitting.

Moreover, one of the best aspects of the film is its use of music. Albinoni’s "Adagio for Strings in G Minor" is the only piece used and its somber, stately quality reflects the hopelessness and misery of Mr. K.’s plight. Its most effective use is when it is played against the incredibly vast horizontal spaces of the main character’s workplace as he makes his way past hundreds of rows of desks, each equipped with a type-writer and typist.

The performances retained from the principal actors in the film are instrumental in realizing the characters. The main character Joseph K. is played by Anthony Perkins (Psycho, 1960). His persona comes off as very pragmatic and defensive given his confusing situation. Perkins also lends an air of homosexuality to the character because of his feminine voice and gestures. Apparently, the director used that quality in Perkins to suggest another texture in Joseph K., a fear of exposure (Ebert).


Another main character that is particularly well-performed is the Advocate, played by the director himself Orson Welles. The Advocate is a large man, unusually dependent on a nurse, and slovenly when dealing with clients. He is the man that Joseph K. is referred to by his uncle for legal help in the story. The Advocate, however, turns out to be a gentle, soft-spoken, hog of a man that remains in his bed throughout his entire appearance. Orson Welles’ child-like modulations in his voice and kingly, careless manner perfectly capture this character. His persona also serves as a stark contrast to Mr. K.’s frantic and impatient temperament.

As a cinematic rendition of Franz Kafka’s literary masterpiece, The Trial successfully achieves the title of cinematic masterpiece. It is a haunting, modern story filled with a great deal of visuals, dialogue and music that correspond well to the overall theme of an individual left impotent and alienated by the social structure of his time. For the contemporary intellectual audience familiar with the novel upon which the film story is based or concerned in any way with human societies, there is certainly a great deal to be appreciated. For the modern moviegoer, unconcerned with literature or sociology, this film will be classified as nothing more than a unique curiosity; strange and esoteric.


The dichotomy between these two audiences precisely illustrates the conflict inherent in deciding what to do with the moving picture medium. Should film be used to communicate messages, rational thoughts, didacticisms to the viewer or should film serve a role similar to music, purely for the conveyance of very subjective, emotional experiences? In analyzing film, it is difficult to decide which type of viewer to address. The casual or the intensive? Either way, The Trial is an interesting cinematic experience that maintains enough momentum in pace, visceral atmosphere and consistency of visual art for the former while also containing interesting, allegorical dialogue and situations for the latter.


  1. Ebert, Roger. The Trial. Movie Reviews. February 25, 2000.

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