A Cold War Kafka: Orson Welles’ The Trial

In Shimer’s Humanities 4 class, we read Kafka’s The Trial and watched Orson Welles’ 1962 film adaptation. As it’s a public domain work, you can watch the film as well, for instance on YouTube:

Generally speaking, the students were disappointed in the changes Welles made to the story — the way he ended it was a particular source of outrage, but other changes seemed to “flatten” the book and the character of K. somehow. I agree with them, but I actually take that as evidence that Welles has done a very capable adaptation of the novel into a film.

Broadly speaking, it seems that a film adaptation of a novel needs to do two things: it needs to capture the spirit of the book in a significant way while simultaneously answering the question of “why now?” For a popular novel like Harry Potter or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the second question answers itself — we’re doing the movie now because the material is popular now. For a novel like The Trial, that takes more work.

My theory is that Welles answered that question by transforming the plot of The Trial from a grim anticipation of totalitarianism to a direct protest against actual-existing totalitarianism — a particularly relevant topic in the early 1960s, when the USSR seemed poised to overtake the West. One can see this above all in the ending, when K. remains defiant and accusatory up to the very last and the two executioners opt to kill him with dynamite, which produces a mushroom cloud. Obviously there is no more salient Cold War trope than the threat of nuclear annihilation. The choice of sets is relevant here as well. Where the novel has K. travelling through poor tenaments to reach the court, Welles presents us with bleak modernist apartment blocks that feel very “Soviet” — and he also has to walk through a crowd of half-naked old men holding signs with numbers, linking Soviet totalitarianism to the Nazi holocaust. Overall, K. emerges as the put-upon American whose resolve sometimes wavers but who ultimately refuses to go without a fight.

This significantly simplifies both the character of K. and the themes of the novel. The ambivalence of K., the sense that he’s both unjustly persecuted and yet a total asshole, is absent here. The ambiguity of the novel also significantly dissipates — for instance, the religious overtones are actively suppressed, above all in the cathedral scene where Welles takes over the delivery of the “Before the Law” sequence. Interestingly, K. interrupts his telling (a full version had brilliantly opened the film), dismissing it as a story “we all know” — in contrast to the novel, where the story is an obscure preface to an inaccessible law, here it is part of the publicly known ideology. In addition, where Kafka is at pains to distinguish his mysterious court from the “normal” law — for instance, by having the executioners run away from a policeman in the final chapter — for Welles, this bizarre court is straightforwardly the law of the land. Accordingly, where the novel’s K. was surprised to learn that the lawyer had a “normal” law practice as well, the film’s K. discovers that the lawyer has a “regular commercial practice” in addition to the criminal practice K. is using.

In many ways, though, Welles brilliantly captures the spirit of the novel, above all in his choice of sets, which convey the kind of squalor and confusion that attends the court proceedings. His cinematography also gives us a visceral sense of the claustrophobia of the novel’s atmosphere, above all in the flogging scene. Welles also handles the sexualization of the Law very capably, bringing out the homoeroetic element in the lawyer’s relationship to Block much more clearly than Kafka does.

Yet all of this is always related back to Welles’s overarching thesis. Unlike Kafka, for instance, he pairs the squalid interiors with imposing exteriors — this contrast is clearest in the cathedral scene, where the interior of the cathedral appears to be a stripped-down warehouse. The sexualization in turn serves as a particularly vivid and immediate demonstration of the simultaneously intrusive and corrupt nature of the totalitarian court. It all looks very impressive, Welles is saying, but underneath it all, it’s nothing but a systematic obscenity that one must resist at all costs.

In light of this systematic approach, I am much less inclined to criticize Welles’s “betrayal” of his source material — some degree of betrayal is inevitable in any translation between mediums, and Welles’s betrayals are far from capricious, even where they’re shocking (as in the ending). It’s not a straightforward adaptation like Michael Haneke’s film version of The Castle — it’s an extended argument for The Trial‘s relevance to urgent contemporary concerns in his historical moment. One might disagree with that argument, but one cannot deny that it is masterfully made.

What’s ironic, then, is that Welles’s systematic reshaping of The Trial into a Cold War parable winds up missing the ways that Kafka may actually help us to understand something like “Soviet totalitarianism” — and that precisely in the moments when K. seems to consent to the legitimacy of this bizarre court. The question one is left with after watching Welles’s film is why everyone isn’t like K., why everyone doesn’t just see right through the injustice and corruption, why everyone isn’t a brave dissenter.

We might do well to attempt to understand such things in this era of the triumph of liberal democracy as the self-evident form of government — and so I propose that a truly contemporary adaptation of The Trial could perhaps take the opposite approach of Welles. This adaptation would unambiguously take place under Stalinism, but all the ambivalence of K.’s character, all the rich overlapping themes, would be left in place. The law before which K. is called wouldn’t be the “regular” law, any more than the Party was simply identical to the state — and this law would still also overlap with religion, and with sexuality, and with family. Most importantly, the audience must not be allowed to settle unambiguously on K.’s innocence.

5 thoughts on “A Cold War Kafka: Orson Welles’ The Trial

  1. Another proposal for a contemporary adaptation: the film would be set in America in the Christmas season, and K. would finally consent to his death sentence for lacking the true spirit of Christmas. After all, aside from a Stalinist show trial, what’s more Kafkaesque than Christmas?

  2. Your interpretation is interesting both in itself and in what it might say about changes in the interpreters’ culture. I’d assumed that Welles’s comfortably settled-in totalitarianism was influenced as much by the F.B.I. as the U.S.S.R. And the bar for assholery must have been raised over the last couple of decades if Perkins’s obnoxious K. no longer reaches it. Welles did consciously choose to make the character more defiant, though, and always admitted he didn’t feel much kinship to his source material.

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