Michel Ciment is one of the most influential film critics and is the chief editor of one of the most important film magazines Positif. Here is his legendary first contribution to it, in an original Toronto Film Review translation, on Orson Welles’ The Trial (June 1963, N.53). – D.D.
Citizen K: Amerika
Welles adapted The Trial as an artist and a poet; this is sufficiently rare that it deserves to be studied closely. All cinematographic adaptations are by necessity an interpretation. Kafka for the first time inspired a film. So far there has been sociologist, theoreticians, psychoanalysts, and philosophers that have searched in Kafka’s oeuvre the confirmation of their theories, having interpreted him to find what they desired, without bothering to analyze what Kafka truly did: the art of the novelist and the poet. Welles offers us a work that is one of interpretation, one potential extension of The Trial, but he does not either cease to be Welles, that is to say as a man that expresses himself by a certain plastic conception of the world and by a sense of the relationship between beings, that comes across through the art of the screen. The path that leads most surely to the fidelity to a work by way of a fidelity to oneself, a rare conjunction, but here that takes place. The path that is here traced avoids at once a faithful illustration, a reproduction that would be both sterile and illusory, that Therese Desqueyroux by Franju is the latest example, and an outright treason, which is more frequent and probably even more deplorable.
Kafka's novel paradoxically offered guarantees for such an enterprise. The action of the novel seemed to me to be potentially boring, since The Trial stands precisely in this well defined genre that emerged in the 18th century and that found its fullest development in the psychological works of the 19th century. In this one here, in effect, the volition for realism, the attention to characterization, and the logical articulation of intrigue offers to the commentators an ample matter of analysis, with a small margin of false interpretation. The Trial, instead, like all of Kafka’s stories, seems singularly open. Not that all interpretations are possible, but its symbolism doesn’t freeze its meaning (like any true symbolism) and it offers the viewer a multiplicity of interpretations. It relates curiously to the great American novels by an unquestionable power of poetic evocation, an undeclared philosophical intention, a Manichaeism vision of the world but not without an ambiguity, in short a deep unrealism at the level of the narrative’s structure that belongs to the fable or to the symbolic narrative. Just think of Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or Light in August or The Great Gatsby to see what these works that are bare of European influences have in common, which are able to find a mythical grandeur proper to works of young civilizations.
The Trial therefore lent itself to a poetic interpretation and also had the potential to be restricting like all other major literary works. Welles was naturally brought to give it a cinematographic form. First of all, his undoubted genius assured us that the film would be of high quality and ambition. The nature of his earlier films belonged to this tradition that we’ve discussed, the deepest the American art has to offer us (this does not, of course, exclude a European influence, although the most obvious one is that of Shakespeare, which is precisely anterior to the bourgeois art of the last few cycles). Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, Citizen Kane (which made me think at times irresistibly to Fitzgerald’s novels), in their melodrama, had the symbolic richness of a fable and only delivered their most profound meaning at the level of the poetic and philosophical interpretation. As well his volition (partly realized) to bring to the screen Moby Dick and Don Quixote, well stated the nature of his artistic and moral concerns.
It was five years ago that Welles stated that he was interested in, "victims of police and State abuse than towards those with money, because today the State is more powerful than money." The coordinates for the birth of this work were in place. We must now look at it as the fulfillment of the most beautiful promise, this being the biggest exception. It’s at the level of forms, its poetic reverie, that Welles and the consistency of his vision is located. The Trial is a film and it is as a film that it should be judged. We’ll thus avoid the pitfall, that a lot of critics fall, of comparing it to one detail of their book and their personnel conception of Kafka.
The film is constructed like a long descent into hell where progressively the hero loses ground. The exacerbation gets more and more intense up to the final suicide: this construction recalls Maldoror’s songs in Dante. Like for Lautréamont, there is a delirious progression that affects the character and the spectator; but a delirium that is organized and methodological. The long-shots of the beginning (the scenes with the two men, then with Mrs. Grubach and Miss Bürstner) contrast with the precipitation of the final scenes that are organized through a montage really quickly or by endless tracking shots like the one that follows K as he is being chased in the gallery by the girls.
This circular construction or rather this spiral journey towards a center is accentuated by the camera movements by Welles that surround the characters and never leave them space to stabilize. The entire progression is also comparable to a huge spider we where progressively K will be trapped and where the center would be Titorelli’s place with the slates as the limits. This cage works with the court and the city, abolishing the notion of space that had gradually disappeared since the beginning of the film. And K’s housing is clearly differentiated from his office, itself distanced from the courts. Yet the spectator, slowly as the film develops, loses all spatial sense and the painter's house, the Tribunal and the church henceforth communicate with each other.
In this undividable space is superimposed an infinite time. There are no references to time given during The Trial. The unsettling noise from the ticking alarm that indicates its 6:14AM in the beginning scene is the first and last measurement of time.
Marthe Robert, in his magisterial essay on Kafka*, notes that K is the only character in the novel and what is happening in him constitutes the story that is happening around him. Welles understood that the very nature of cinema was incompatible with the specifically literary success of a book like The Trial, where the illusion of objectivity came from the absolute subjectivity of the narrative. Unable to play on two levels like Kafka, Welles knew to not place unusual events in a otherwise deliberately realistic narrative, which would have been the solution that would have corresponded to the first impressions of the reader, but which would have prevented any profound interpretation of the fable. True to himself and by the same occasion Kafka (and in agreement with Marthe Robert, and no offense to Bernard Dort**), Welles deliberately projected into the decor and in the details of the narrative that phantasms and obsessions of the hero. This rejoins him to what Kafka wrote in his journal: "Far from oneself there takes place history's story, the history of the world of your soul." The narrow parallelism between the world and the self, the fantasy universe disturbs and haunts what we contemplate, a faithful reflection of the problems of K, which is conveyed to us through this voluntarily unreal style. The decor and the world of the film are formed by figures created by K, "and for this reason it is why they would not appear in his absence. "*** The spectator may be shocked by this apparent betrayal of the spirit Kafka and attack Welles for this deviation, but it is actually a profound interpretation, perhaps un-loyal to the letter, which he is contemplating.
The Imaginary Prisons
Just like for each new film by Welles, people did not fail to mention gratuitous virtuosity, calls that it is a masterpiece, and describe it as part of an anthology. More than ever, yet, the coherence of its vision and the perfect adequacy of its themes and style, give this work by Welles its most convincing quality. It is vain to repeat the impressive continuity in the expression of Welles since Citizen Kane that can prevent any accusations of maniérisme, and to prove on the contrary the persistence of his unique search for a moral and an aesthetic, authentic and personal.
In the world of cinema where fluff is increasingly placed on the viewer, it creates suspicion in the spectator, and if, moreover, they are French, he is wearied of excess and grandiosity because, "we don’t do that." Also it should be noted how the Wellesien stylistic is appropriate to its theme. The low ceilings make the choking sensation, the claustrophobia that K regularly suffers from and that leads him to near fainting. The intensity of the decor that weighs on the hero translates in plastic terms the physical anguish that K feels. It attains in one of its culminating high points in the too brief sequence where the two employers that have stopped K are tortured with whips in the miniature of his office. The camera swings, searching in vain for a place to sit - this blurriness invades the screen – and the dark lighting succeeds in creating shadows to create a hallucinatory impression. It is clearly evident here that Welles, whose supreme at creating artifice, utilizes all the technical resources, and yet, through this artifice, he finds the strength of the material that is drawn from life, and this impression is undeniable and truthful. This bronze door, these tortured men suddenly remind us, along with another scene in the film, of hiding places and of death camps.
This makes Welles in his constant pursuit of truth very close to Kafka. Have we remarked enough that the film by Welles doesn’t testify to the pursuit of beauty, like it is in the sense for Antonioni, Visconti or Murnau. The beauty of his oeuvre is that of a great inspiration, of a seer in the pursuit of a veritable metaphysics. In Kafka, people flee K’s gaze in the search for a truth; everyone slips away to better protect themselves. This world that escapes in front of the quest of the hero finds expression in Welles in its famous chiaroscuro, a mock object for many people. Yet it is essentially the plastic equivalent of this suspension of time that we’ve discussing, or again of this impression of the condemned, this expectation of death. The grays that envades the film splendidly restores this moment of awakening, "between waking and sleeping, where reality is still unstable, fragmented, and where anything is possible. "****
The Trial would then also be a nightmare of an awakening. Welles does not exclude this ironic dimension of The Trial, but he does not let it be the key to the film, like as some have accused it for. He simply imagines Kafka's work in its complexity. The English commentators have said, in effect, that some have compared the logic of the book to that of a dream; and to say nothing more. Welles opens the film with a shot of K waking up, and it is interesting to note that by an artifice of mise en scene, there is the impression of a doubling that is coarse and superimposed. We see the chamber through the eyes of K, and then K rises, moves around in the chamber, while the point of view of the camera is still and then is at the same height and place where K was just at, as if he was looking at himself. Several times in the film, this impression is felt by the spectator, emphasizing the reflexive character of the narrative, there being distance from the hero by himself, just like it is in Kafka.
The impression of loneliness that we have seen, made by the overwhelming décor, is reinforced by another aspect of the decor, even more striking than the latter and not less Wellesien: the immensity of the space. In these huge locations where voices repeat in echoes, with all of these innumerable metal stairs, horizons that recede, ceiling with their hanging pulleys and ropes, these scaffolding, these are sets where the visions of men are lost, irresistibly remind us of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, the black chambers of a visionary mind.***** K, in effect, is and is not in prison and these places that seem to be a huge cell and which are not, are the perfect architectural frame to render his interior experience. We also saw in Piranesi an immanent justice, just like in Dante's Inferno, and the absence of links between the parties and the characters bring us closer to the world of The Trial, like also it’s ominous atmosphere and absence of any plant life. Not one flower, not even one plant from Welles, if not then one of its final shots, so poignant, where a tree reflected in the water gives the death of the fugitive, the first and last image of nature, the sense of a terrible lost for man. One must just remember the Thatcher memorial and the palace in Citizen Kane, to understand the attention and obsession Welles brings to this.
This unusual ensemble is reinforced by a multiplicity of surprising details aimed at creating a "dislocating feeling" in the spectator. The wife of the official washes her clothes in a huge hall of the Tribunal, where this gigantic door, that K can’t close since the handle is so high. We could cite an infinity of examples, but it is more interesting to look into, for a specific example, the way Welles accentuates this unreal atmosphere. At the lawyer’s there are thousands of lit candles that give the huge space the appearance of a Renaissance palace, and the unreasonably large bed which occupies the center supports this belief. The stranger would not go further, if suddenly a reference to common sense would provide him with this realization. The uncle speaks of a failure, where the explanation is spoken normally, even with the orgies which would be impossible in terms of the number of people. This short sentence makes one conscious of that any explanation of common sense is impossible and that we are in fact facing a lack of meaning.
The normal customs, at this point, don’t exist for Welles and instead there is only two forms of architecture; one, futuristic, with these huge termite-like mounts, rows of severe-looking balconies, this endless hall where the typewriters crackle and the busy ant-like humans work, where the camera slowly rises; and, the other, pre-diluvian, as we have already evoked, and that Welles has been using since the action in Macbeth. Neither one nor the other are contemporary and are not made for the measure of man.
Description of Combat
The man isn’t necessarily absent. The care with which Welles develops the décor might suggest a dehumanization of his art. This is to accuse the artist of a fault that the universe is responsible for. Welles is simply testifying to a loss of integrity in the modern man. The décor, a parallel physical universe to the mental universe of the hero, is the frame of his existence and of his evolution, and is always seen in function of K. This is what is so central to the work for Welles the humanist. It was in K’s engagement with the world and with others that we find as in Kafka, the Heart of the film.
There are many characters that remain unknown to the spectator, and the totality of them only exists in relation to the presence of K. Once they leave, they vanish. This lack of secondary characters leads to their nature having a dimension that is rendered solely by the point of view of the narrative. Therefore Miss Bürstner’s friend is characterized by only a single physical detail, the sound of her mechanical leg, and her unique appearance is presented in an extremely slow traveling-shot that keeps her at a distance from us, not showing us her face. It is that for K, she will remain unknowable, "the friend of Miss Bürstner." It is that the man is for for others only a name, a label. Like in all of Welles’ films, the name of the hero is repeated a lot by those he meets. “Mr. K, Mr. K,” that nagging call reminds the hero how arbitrary his name is for him since for him he’s an “I” and not a name. It is bureaucracy that imposes civility as a given state to all existence.
This void that separates humanity finds itself confirmed by the conversations, which perpetually overlap without ever coming together, a cacophony where K tries in vain to find himself. In their joint work, the uncle suddenly leaves K, then re-joins him, a perpetual and absurd back and forth. Just think of the similar scenes in Kane and Arkadin in particular to see how this proliferation of quick verbal dialogue alienates human relations. It is interesting to note in this regard how Welles is different than the most modern pursuits like that of Antonioni that aims to interrupt suddenly the scenes before they become dramatic, adding to the contrary this relational dimension, and to stretch the scene towards infinity, to the threshold of exasperation, leaving his actors exasperated.
There is in Welles, home de cinéma par excellence, a sense of drama that is itself theatrical: the scene and not the shot is the filmic unifier in The Trial. This stretching of scenes is not incompatible with a sense of ellipses, that Welles possesses to the highest degree, and that accentuates the arbitrary character of the events that abruptly occur in the life of K. If we add the frequent use of depth of field that allows for two or three simultaneous actions, and that sometimes superimposes off-screen conversation, like in the long scene at the lawyers, we would have an idea of the condensation that Welles achieves and that allows him in a two hour of film, to give the equivalent of a three hundred page book, while remaining faithful to the events and the dialogue: a challenge that has never before been fulfilled by such a rich work.
Welles studied under another angel the nature of relationships between the characters. Because of the absence of connections as we’ve evoked is juxtaposed an equally cruel alienation. In the relationship between Block and the lawyer, we have, like in Les bonnes or Le balcon by Genet, lighting that compels and constrains certain social functions. Block needs the lawyer, and the reverse-shot that gets him noticed by Mr. Huld shows his enslavement. But the attention by Mr. Huld of Block if it indicates his dominance, also shows that for Huld, as he says himself, that all of the accused have something fascinating about themselves. While K is dissected at the lawyers, this character here seems to be amputated by himself.
It is this moral sense that the lawyer can’t live without his clients; there is like a sadomasochistic relationship that we find here in these love scenes, which are treated often, in a register, like the aquarium scene in The Lady from Shanghai and where the woman gives free rein to her expressed desires.
It is by now clear that the abstract society that K runs away from is incomprehensible. This court and trial recall, even in its expressions, Lang’s M, which itself was a prophet of, as was the work of Kafka, Nazism. The little boy who introduces himself by hand, like all the girls at Titorellis, testifies a lost innocence. The long lines of people with lost looks to them, to the skeletal bodies, with hurt necks, posed and ready to die, scare the spectator and give them troubling shivers. The end captures the novels profound essence that for Kafka was captured by the suicide, that of a suffocation. That Welles had wanted to finish with a dynamite explosion that transforms into an atomic cloud, how could one blame him, since he’s getting at the most profound anxiety of modern man and the collective responsibility. The individual who searches in vain to learn the truth about the law dies as a victim of a resigned world, long before him, to let oneself be destroyed, slowly, from the inside.
The Welles film is then the description of a combat, the lost battle, this isn’t even questionable it’s necessary. This is his first work where there is a conflict that contributes to its greatest richness. In his previous films, his characters threw themselves with an amazing violence force against... Nothing. His heroes were the demagogues, the world organized against them, and contributed to their death. Here, it remains terrifying for all.
It is no wonder that he man who started his first film by citing Coleridge and Kubla Khan, has pursued in his later works these mysterious correspondences that mix reality with dreams. Welles’ oeuvre reveals a deep imagination. It might appear to be paradoxical to say this, that as with Kafka, his desire is to “decipher the indecipherable and to give order to chaos," since it seems he takes so much joy to throw out red herrings and to give free rein to his tumultuous genius. Yet Welles’ vision is so totally chaotic. When he states that he spends a lot more time editing than filming, it is that Welles carries within him, the montage, it is the organizing of chaos, the transformation of the work into art within the limits of his voluntary and to not betray his more intimate dreams.
Doesn’t what the Surrealist Gracq said apply more to Welles than to any other filmmaker? “There was this essential virtue to claim that at all instances the expression of totality of man, of a mixture of acceptation and refusal, a constant separation and reintegration, and he was able to maintain within the heart of this contradiction, to maintain at its most extreme point the tension of the two simultaneous attitudes that make this fascinating and unlivable world ours. The glare and fury.”****** The Trial leads us to one of these poles, in stages where this search aims for equilibrium that is against what is apparently the work of Welles.
P.S. – It seems to me that three dominating films by their stature of this cinematographic year are: L'Eclisse, Viridiana, The Trial. The quality of their success probably comes from the shared volition of their authors of not sacrificing any of the constituent elements of their oeuvre and their relationship to the world, their creators and to art. André Breton defined, in an article on the ‘Minotaur’, the duties of the modern artist, and it is sufficient to necessarily transpose them to see how these ideas remain valid today to explain the enchanting power of these works that concern all of us.
“At the hour where Barcelona is falling apart due to deprivation under a hellish sky, or where the days of liberty seem to be counting down, the work of the artist reflect nothing tragic in their apprehension of their times, they obstinate to render the world as it is... To believe in the subjects that they choose and the way that they treat them, it would be only sensible to the amenities the table, as an intimidate attractions designed only for those that can afford such luxury... While less than ever to do depend closely on contemporary realities than that of the artistic themes, that we continue to believe are artistic, that above all, must be about love rather than anger or pity. We refuse at least as tendentious, as reactionary, all images that the painter or poet propose to us today of a stable universe, where the menu is that of a sensory pleasure, not only of taste but also of but exaltation. They pretend that art is already ahistorical; while the problem is no longer whether a a work of art “holds together” for example in its frame, but if it stands aside the social realities of its day.”*******
* Gallimard, 1960.
** In France/Observateur, 27 December 1962, N.660.
*** Marthe Robert (op cit).
**** Marthe Robert.
***** Marguerite Yourcenar: “Sur Piranese, NFR-January. 1961.
****** Julien Gracq: Pourqoui la literature respire mal, in Preferences, Jose Corti, 1960.
******* Cited by J.-F. Revel in L’Oeil, May, 1962. Article from 1939.