Trial and Error
by Howard Schumann

"I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy" - Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka's 1925 novel The Trial runs the gamut between farce and tragedy. Joseph K., a bank clerk, is arrested by unknown authorities in an unspecified location for a crime he knows nothing about and which is not revealed to him. He claims he is innocent, and it soon becomes apparent that his denying the charge may be his only crime. Joseph K. is arrested, but not confined, and the story relates his year-long attempt to make sense of what happened, to find a way out of his situation, and his struggle against an ominous and enigmatic court hierarchy (which does not correspond to any known legal system). Joseph's uncle helps him to find a famous Advocate but he quickly loses confidence in him when he meets an older client of the Advocate who has become fawning and obsequious. Continuing to pursue justice, Joseph K. is led deeper into a surreal world that renders his search more and more futile. He gradually weakens in his struggle and gets deeper into a state of paranoia and disorientation.

Orson Welles' The Trial (1962) skirts the edge of greatness, but doesn't reach it. A French, German, and Italian production that became another unprofitable film for Welles, the film was recently revived in a fully restored print. To my mind, it contains some very brilliant images, a true "Kafkaesque" nightmarish atmosphere, and, unlike the novel, comes to a resounding conclusion. On the whole, however, I found it to be disjointed and unfocused, with some serious loss of continuity. This is a project that would have been helped by the assistance of a large studio. There is sometmies a lack of synchronicity between lip movements and voices (supposedly a common problem in Welles's films). Though spoken in English, it looks like a dubbed version of a Japanese horror film.

Anthony Perkins was purportedly recruited because his personal issues made him a natural to portray a fearful person. Unfortunately, he turns in a wooden performance. Instead of adding to the disoriented feel of the movie, he is so flat and unconvincing as Joseph K. that his presence is a distraction. Welles himself plays The Advocate, a bed-ridden lawyer who spends most of his time catering to his mistress and stripping his clients of their dignity. The star of the film has to be the visuals and the baroque music of Albinoni. Ominous and foreboding, the film takes us on a surreal plunge into labyrinthine passageway corridors that lead to other corridors, and doors that lead to other doors. Some rooms are completely filled with waste paper or files spilling onto the floor. Welles presents cavernous-like workplaces filled with hundreds of busy clerks - the picture was mostly filmed inside a huge, abandoned railway station in Paris (the Gare D'Orsay, now turned into a museum). These lobbies, arcades, and tunnels make individuals appear small and insignificant, and create the feeling of an otherworldly landscape.

Two scenes especially stand out. The first is in the huge workplace when hundreds of workers get up to leave simultaneously. The other is a scene when screaming girls chase Joseph K up the stairs to the cheap plywood studio of the painter Titorelli (William Chappell), and peer at him through the slats of the walls, while Joseph K. gasps for air. Welles' The Trial is disorienting, bombastic, and bordering on the insane. At other times it is simply erratic, confusing, and tedious. It was apparently a very personal film for him, and one that engendered a lot of sweat and passion. He is alleged to have considered it his best. For me, however, it falls far short of that.

David Hugh Jones' The Trial (1993) has a lot that the Welles version lacks -- superior acting, an expensive production beautifully photographed in Prague, an outstanding screenplay by Harold Pinter, and a faithful, almost literal, adherence to Kafka's novel. The only thing missing is wit, style, a spark of life, and creative energy. With Welles, the film ends with a powerful impact; this one ends with a resounding thud.

Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Joseph K. in this version, is best known for his role as agent Cooper in Twin Peaks. I believe he is a better actor than Anthony Perkins, but here his performance is so emotionally distant that I didn't care a whit about what happened to him. Supporting performances are outstanding, especially Jason Robards as the Advocate and Anthony Hopkins as the prison chaplain. But in spite of my considerable esteem for Mr. Pinter, I found this film to be flat and lifeless, and the experience little different than listening to an audiotape of the novel.

Kafka's book can be interpreted in many different ways: as a personal statement against the loneliness of man up against the forces of the universe, an attack on the inhumane bureaucracy inherent in authoritarian government, or perhaps as a religious parable. “Kafka’s novels,” says genre critic Franz Rottensteiner, “move in a circle, and their helpless heroes are caught in the fabric of a world that is ever elusive to them. They are mere cogs in a senseless social machine.” However you interpret it, The Trial is not easy to forget, and seems more relevant today than ever. Translating it to film is another story. I don't think either version is fully satisfying, but the Welles version at least tries to capture the nightmarish quality of the novel. The definitive version has yet to be made.

X is to A as A is to M. This is not a theorem from an algebra class, but a diagram of the relationships in Alain Resnais' picture puzzle from the French New Wave, Last Year At Marienbad (1961). Co-written by Resnais and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film is an exploration of various states of time, space, and memory. The characters do not have names but are listed in the credits as A, X, and M. What there is of plot is very simple. A (Delphine Seyrig), accompanied by M (Sacha Pitoëff), who may or may not be her husband, and X (Giorgio Albertazzi), whom she may or may not have seen before, meet at an opulent European hotel that may or may not exist. X is disturbed that A doesn't recognize him even after he tells her of their encounter the previous year at Fredricksburg, or was it Marienbad? or Baden-Salsa? He tells her they agreed they would not see each other for one year and he is now here to fulfill his part of the bargain. X pleads with A to leave with him, and she seems to be thinking about it, but the situation is complicated by M, who is a brooding and threatening presence.

Underscored by somnolent organ music, Last Year In Marienbad creates an eerie and hypnotic mood. The characters walk through the hotel's long, dark corridors, gazing at the mirrors, statues, and ornate chandeliers in a trance-like state that emphasizes the atmosphere of sterility. The film has been interpreted many ways, as a dream sequence, an updated version of Orpheus in the Underworld, a satire on Hollywood film-noir romances, and a sci-fi horror story. The people are 1) real, 2) statues, 3) aliens, 4) none of the above. Whatever its ultimate meaning, the film forces us to look at whether memory is subjective, that is, a creative process, or simply involves the recollection of an objective past. To this extent the film is successful; watching it made me think about my own past experiences and whether certain events I always took for granted were simply my interpretation.

Last Year in Marienbad is a difficult and challenging film that definitely made me think, but one I found frustrating to get a handle on. There were times when I was bored silly, and other times when I was deeply involved in the imagery and the atmosphere. I found the best way to stay focused was to just be there, drinking in the images for their poetic rather than literal meaning. If you have the necessary patience and respond to challenges, you too will have an interesting evening (or was it morning)?

©2003 Howard Schumann