As Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is woken in his room by a shadowy law-man, he is arrested and charged. Ignorant of what he has been accused of yet eager to protest his innocence, K travels to confront the judicial system. Yet facing a labyrinthine network of lawyers, judges and criminals, K struggles to uphold his virtuous nature in the face of this tirade of accusation.
Stylised swathes of darkness lead the viewer into The Trial, remaining omnipresent throughout K’s futile battle against the establishment. Startlingly true to an often surreal book, Welles skilfully uses shadow to communicate the oppressive nature of Kafka’s text. The law lurks in every corner of this world, planting an inescapable mark on the physiological and psychological states of its inhabitants. With low camera angles, even the ceilings become agents of the state, at one point forcing a downtrodden man to crawl under their weight. The expansiveness of the outside world is little of an escape, an apocalyptic wasteland that remains chillingly familiar to K. Harking back to the unsettlingly angular and artificial environment of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Trial creates a world buckling under injustice; never beautiful but constantly startling in its style.
Forming K into a jittery man-child, Perkins’ portrayal of Kafka’s protagonist remains a significant divergence from the original text. While the book used the intelligence of K to amplify the impossible nature of the failing system of law, Welles’ The Trial misses out on such an impact by making K into an individual caught unawares. However, Perkins remains superbly driven throughout and creates a powerfully pathetic central pillar for the film. Playing Albert Hassler, Welles, unsurprisingly, doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to remould an originally frail character into a rambunctious monolith. While not exerting the same impact as he did over The Third Man, Hassler becomes a fitting figure of power. Disappointingly, in his directorial role, Welles makes the decision to alter Kafka’s finale and an incredibly powerful literary ending. This ultimately taints The Trial’s dénouement but surprisingly does not detract from the impact of the preceding two hours. The film is majestic and essential. The verdict: stunning.