“Starting with a relatively simple idea, Kafka plunges into an incoherent, absurd and surreal world. The idea is this: Bureaucrats, the system of administration and its power crush the individual. The individual becomes a choking victim of society when by chance - or misfortune - he is drawn toward the gears of its system.”


Such is the dreaded and sadly relatable premise of Orson Welles’ nightmarish 1962 film The Trial as revealed in the scrolling text that opens the film. The film is based on a novel by Franz Kafka, the famous German novelist.


What follows that opening text and precedes the actual film is a somber parable, narrated by writer-director Welles, which tells of a man from the country who arrives at the great door of “The Law” and requests admittance but is denied entry by the standing guard. And so the man sits idly by as he is denied entry for years until, upon reaching old age, he asks the guard why no one else has ever asked to be allowed in. The guard informs him that the door was intended only for him and summarily closes the door.


This devastating parable serves as a microcosm of the ensuing narrative. The function of the narrative as rhetoric is illuminated by the following: effective use of film as a rhetoric of display; Kenneth Burke’s ideas about identification, symbolism and formal organization; Bakhtin’s views on politics and literature; and finally, Wayne Booth’s notion of authors as advocates (literally).

The body of the actual film follows the plight of Josef K., a young man who is one day rudely awakened by the police and informed that he is under arrest but kept completely in the dark about the nature of his charges. Throughout the course of the film, Josef encounters a variety of bizarre characters, ranging from a group of confounding inspectors who make up words to a portly advocate who keeps clients as slavish devotees, as he attempts to uncover the truth about his charges. However, Josef only succeeds in wading deeper and deeper into a seemingly inscrutable and enigmatic legal system. Ultimately, Josef is unable to ascertain the reason for his arrest and is soon sentenced to death. He is killed by a pair of executioners as he laughs maniacally in the face of the apparent lunacy and absurdity of his world. 

Lawrence Prelli writes that “rhetorics of display are nearly ubiquitous in contemporary communication and culture and, thus, have become the dominant rhetoric of our time.” To Prelli, these rhetorics of display include “television and film images.” Filmic storytelling, as employed by Welles, can be a monumentally powerful form of expression capable of conveying ideas and emotions of a richer, far more intense nature than poetry, theatre and literature before it. Film can captivate like no other communicative medium and brandish incredible rhetorical power primarily for its likeness to an ancient, primal tradition of gathering around firelight in the dark to be enchanted by some tribal storyteller or shaman as they bring order, magic and levity to the brutish nature of our collective and less civilized past.


In The Trial, the right hands are at the controls of such a powerful instrument of rhetoric. Welles and crew craft a film that enhances Kafka’s adapted narrative by incorporating haunting dream-like imagery as the barren interiors of an apartment building raided by ominous, leering, stalkish authority figures; said authority figures later being found shirtless and facing punishment by whip in a tiny storage room; a vast warehouse space filled with hundreds of desks occupied by hundreds of dutiful clerical workers; an immense hall of suited spectators loudly mocking Josef K. as he makes an impassioned speech in his own defense; and the generally either labyrinthine or desolate industrial locations which entrap and confound Josef in his vain search for truth and justice. Welles’ visual-centric strategy arms the narrative with a power and resonance that reinforces Kafka’s alluring indictment of a society gone mad and elevates the narrative to sublime heights.

Kenneth Burke is considered one of the most influential rhetorical theorists of the 20th century. Burke was deeply concerned with the idea of rhetoric as a means of overcoming or at least temporarily countering the inherent division and separation among humanity to achieve a kind of unification or identification. He saw identification as “the antidote for our alienation from one another” and possible through our relating to one another through a quality known as consubstantiality, or recognition of “common substances, including physical embodiment, common aspirations, and language itself.”


In Welles’ film, Burke’s view of mankind’s natural condition of division and alienation deeply pervades the narrative. Josef K. attempts to find clear, common ground between himself and the human-run legal apparatus that is stacked against him in the narrative through his desire to understand the reason for his arrest. In one scene, Josef attempts a concerted spoken rhetorical effort to address his predicament in front of a large, assembled commission. His words are impassioned and desperate but he is laughed at by the seated sea of suited men and ultimately interrupted by an apparent sexual assault taking place at the back of the room. Such a tragic scene is emblematic of the narrative of The Trial which represents a complete failure of Burke’s aspirations for achieving identification.

Burke was also deeply interested in human being’s use of symbols. He saw humans as “the symbol-using animals” that employed symbolic systems, like language, for a wide variety of ends. However, he also believed that humans were also “goaded by a spirit of hierarchy” and “rotten with perfection” that complicated matters. These characteristics of humans are found in the narrative of The Trial, albeit in a bleakly pessimistic way. Josef K. is cast into a world of profuse ordering and labelling, characteristic of the kind of perfectionism that we’re “rotten with,” according to Burke.


This densely ordered and labeled world also has a frustrating hierarchical dimension in the film. In his quest, Josef encounters groups of people standing idly by, having been designated as accused persons and waiting seemingly endlessly on the results of submitted affidavits. In other parts of the film, Josef hears reference to courts and judges of various ranks. When one level of authority seems within grasp and influence after considerable maneuvering and effort, it is revealed that they only constitute a kind of lower tier. This is hierarchical organization and perfectionism run amuck. A Burkean horror.

Rhetorical form was also a foremost interest of Burke’s. Burke described various “aspects” of rhetorical form and defined them as “an arousing and fulfillment of desire.” Burke implied that a rhetor could implement a type of form prescribed by Burke to help an audience understand the argument’s underlying structure and anticipate the next step of the argument, fulfilling that “desire.” Burke highlighted the following formal aspects: syllogistic form, qualitative progression, repetitive form, conventional form and minor or incidental form.


Relevant to the rhetoric of The Trial are the qualitative progression and repetitive forms described by Burke. Qualitative progression suggests, according to Burke, that “one incident in a plot prepares us for some other incident of plot.” This rhetorical form is initiated in the film’s narrative when Josef K. is informed of his arrest. From that point forward, the audience expects that Josef’s legal quagmire will somehow be resolved by film’s end. And it is. This is also a basic tenet of storytelling. A storyteller causes a cat to run up a tree and must get it back safely by story’s end. Otherwise, the audience is left in wanting of a satisfying resolution.


The other rhetorical form pertinent to The Trial is repetitive form, which Burke describes as “the consistent maintaining of a principle under new guises.” This is clearly observed in the narrative of the film as Josef encounters police inspectors, fellow apartment tenants, an office superordinate, family relatives, an advocate and the judges’ portrait painter. All of whom share the same puzzlement over his baffling legal predicament. Everyone encountered is a vessel for even greater confusion and misdirection. No one has answers. Everyone says something different which serves only to aggravate and embolden Josef further. Both qualitative progression and repetitive form assist in grafting onto the seemingly chaotic narrative firm and easily graspable struts that contribute to its overall rhetorical effectiveness. 

A Russian linguist eminently interested in discourse and rhetoric, particularly in politics and literature, was Mikhail Bakhtin. One of his aims was to challenge rhetorical theorists to take into account marginalized voices and consider how they were affected by the clash with those from society’s “center” and perhaps armed with what Bakhtin termed “monologia,” or the fixed meaning of state or official language.


Bakhtin’s desire to pay heed to the underrepresented is at the heart of The Trial’s narrative. Josef K.’s dire situation in the narrative calls to mind the hardship and severe frustration of abjected peoples throughout history that have been cruelly plied by the machinations of a powerful but merciless and uncaring government. Bakhtin believed that it was in the purview of literature and rhetoric to address such political concerns.

Lastly, a U.S. writer and literary critic by the name of Wayne Booth had a great deal to say about the intersection of authorial intent and textual content. He contended that the author’s voice or “judgement is always present” and that “We must never forget that though the author can to some extent choose his disguises, he can never choose to disappear.” It can be seen that Welles’ takes full, somewhat audacious advantage of such a proposition and casts himself in the film as the narrator and one of its most prominent characters, the advocate Hastler.


The character of advocate Hastler is introduced as a possibly helpful figure with some amount of influence in the court system, however, that veneer is ultimately pierced and we come to see him as basically ineffectual and as someone who keeps his clients as servile pets that answer to his every beck and call. Welles plays the character as slovenly, domineering, short-tempered and spending most of his screen-time in a large, regal bed.


At the near-finale of the narrative, Welles’ Hastler appears to offer stern warning to Josef K. about attempting to defy the courts. In such an act, the author of this filmic narrative is basically offering, at the height of his engrossing image play, a rhetoric of acquiescence and complacency against the harsh and indecipherable nature of the protagonist’s world. Suffice to say, Welles’ involvement in his own film significantly underlines the bleak nature of the narrative’s overall message.
In summary, the narrative of Orson Welles’ grim 1962 film The Trial effectively functions as rhetoric when considering its impactful use of visuals along with Burke’s bold assertions about the need for identification, wariness toward hierarchy and perfectionism in symbol-use and exploration of rhetorical form. The strength of the narrative as rhetoric is also guided by Bakhtin’s ideas about championing the marginalized and Booth’s denial of the detachment and absolute objectivity of authors toward their narratives.


  • Herrick, J. A. (2013). The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. Boston: Pearson.