Trial, The (1962): Orson Welles Version of Kafka, Starring Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider

Orson Welles directed and wrote The Trial, based on the noted novel of the same name by Franz Kafka.

The Trial

French theatrical release poster

Anthony Perkins, after scoring big in Hitchcock’s Psycho, stars in the leading role as Josef K., a petit bureaucrat who is accused of a vague crime.

Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli play the women who get involved in Josef’s trial and life.

Welles plays the Advocate, Josef’s lawyer, the tale’s most villainous figure, as well as the film’s narrator.

Using the vocabulary of film noir, The Trial relies on sharp black-and-white cinematography, contrast between light and shadow, disorienting camera angles, and unusual use of focus through unanticipated mega close-ups.

Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) lives in a small apartment that he shared with other lodgers.  Suddenly, a severe-looking suited man enters his into his bedroom. Josef assumes the glib man is a policeman, but the intruder refuses to identify himself.

Several detectives then tell Josef he is under arrest, without specifying by whom and for what crime. In another room Josef K. sees his fellow workers offering evidence regarding some unstated crime. The police refuse to inform Josef K. of his misdeeds, or if he is charged with a crime, and he is not taken into custody.  But the suspicion, threat, and sense of fatal doom begin to take effect on his everyday life.

Josef converses with his landlady, Mrs. Grubach (Madeleine Robinson), and neighbor, Miss Bürstner (Jeanne Moreau), about the strange visitation, but receives no sympathy or understanding from either.

At the office, his supervisor thinks that he is a sexual predatory, who is having improper relations with his teenaged cousin. That evening, Josef attends the opera, but is inexplicably abducted by a police inspector (Arnoldo Foà) and brought to a mysterious courtroom.

Josef returns to his office and discovers the two police officers who had first visited him being whipped in a small room. Josef’s uncle Max suggests that Josef consult with Hastler (Orson Welles), a law advocate. After brief encounters with the wife of a courtroom guard (Elsa Martinelli) and other condemned men presumably awaiting trial, Josef is granted interview with Hastler.

Hastler’s flirtatious mistress (Romy Schneider) suggests that Josef seek the advice of the artist Titorelli (William Chappell). Seeking refuge in a cathedral, Josef learns from a priest (Michael Lonsdale) that he is condemned to death.

On the eve before he turns 31, Josef is apprehended by two executioners and brought to a quarry pit, where he is forced to remove his clothing. The executioners pass a knife back and forth, before handing it to him as  the condemned man, who refuses to commit suicide.

The executioners leave Josef in the quarry, while tossing dynamite in the pit. Josef laughs at his executioners and picks up the dynamite. In the last, powerful image, shot from a distance there is an explosion and smoke billows into the air.

Welles the narrator then takes over to introduce the cast by name, as he had done in earlier pictures.

In 1960, producer Alexander Salkind approached Welles with the idea of making a film based on a literary work in the public domain.  He offered Welles a list with numerous titles, including Taras Bulba (which they learned was being made into a picture as star vehicle for Yul Brynner.

In adapting the work, he rearranged the order of Kafka’s chapters, which was not definitive as it was supervised by his literary executor, Max Brod, after the writer’s death.

Welles also modernized aspects of the story, introducing computer technology and changing Miss Burstner’s profession from a typist to a cabaret performer.

The text begins with a fable from the book about a man who is permanently detained from seeking access to the Law by a guard. To illustrate this allegory, he used the animation of Alexandre Alexeieff, who created animated prints with thousands of pins.

More significantly, Welles altered the manner of Josef K.’s death. Kafka had the executioners pass the knife over the head of Josef K., and he is fatally stabbed by them,  As he dies, he says, “like a dog.”

In the film, however, whilst the executioners offer him the knife, Josef K. refuses to take it, and goads the executioners by yelling “You’ll have to do it!” The movie concludes with the powerful image of smoke of the fatal dynamite blast, forming a mushroom cloud, while Welles reads the closing credits.

Welles had always regretted that he was not able to shoot The Trial in Kafka’s home city of Prague–the writer’s work was banned by the then reigning communist government in Czechoslovakia.

Welles continued to edit the film up until its December 1962 premiere in Paris. In the process, he cut out a whole sequence of Josef K. meeting the computer scientist, played by Katina Paxinou (the Greek actress who had earned the Best Supporting Actress in 1943 for For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The film’s relatively low-budget (about $1.3 million) had forced Welles to shoot quickly and to place most scenes within contained sets (such as Paris train station).

Nonetheless, with grand ambition and incredible talent, he had still managed to make a grim and moody film, defined by an expressionistic style and claustrophobic mood, which were effective in illuminating the symbolic elements of Kafka’s seminal tale.

While not one of Welles best films, The Trial has its moments.

Of all the countries in which it played, the movie was the most successful in France, where it was seen by close to one million people.

Anthony Perkins – Josef K.
Jeanne Moreau – Marika Burstner
Romy Schneider – Leni
Elsa Martinelli – Hilda
Suzanne Flon – Miss Pittl
Orson Welles – Albert Hastler, the Advocate
Akim Tamiroff – Bloch
Madeleine Robinson – Mrs. Grubach
Paola Mori – Court archivist
Arnoldo Foà – Inspector 

Fernand Ledoux – Chief Clerk of the Law Court
Michael Lonsdale – Priest
Max Buchsbaum – Examining Magistrate
Max Haufler – Uncle Max
Maurice Teynac – Deputy Manager


French Title: Le procès
Directed by Orson Welles
Screenplay by Welles, based on the novel The Trial by Franz Kafka
Produced by Alexander Salkind
Cinematography Edmond Richard
Music by Jean Ledrut; Tomaso Albinoni
Distributed by Astor Pictures Corporation

Release dates: December 22, 1962 (France); April 2, 1963 (West Germany); September 7, 1963 (Italy)

Running time: 118 minutes
Budget: US$1.3 Million
Box office 998,779 admissions (France)