The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. This is a different list than the 100 Greatest English-Language Films one, although a few entries overlap. — Dennis
Orson Welles, who wrote and directed The Trial, from Franz Kafka, considered it his best piece of work. I concur.
Certainly it is Welles’s most haunted film. It satirizes bureaucracy by promoting it to an almost cosmic level of authoritarianism, as Kafka had done in order to portray humanity’s sense of cluelessness in the vast, impersonal modern world; but Welles also lends great sorrow to the satire by infusing it with a specter of the Holocaust. (Kafka’s novella preceded the Holocaust by about twenty years; the film came about twenty years after.) This brings to fruition the full horror of totalitarianism that Kafka had only begun to imagine. To be sure, the film dazzles with its kaleidoscopic maze of ambiguous black-and-white images and visual cul-de-sac, its use of chiaroscuro, its urgent sense of parable; but it is the film’s phantomlike repository of historical memory, an omnipresent insinuation, that accounts for its inexhaustible power of emotion.
Not everyone who loves Welles loves this film. Critic Andrew Sarris, who places Welles in his pantheon of great American filmmakers, finds The Trial “hateful,” “repellent,” “perverted”—or did so at the time of The American Cinema (1968), where he writes: “Welles asserts in his prologue that his story has the logic of a dream, but Welles on Kafka, like Modigliani’s white on white, is less logical than superfluous, less a dream of something than a dream of a dream of something.” Bound up in memory, Welles’s film is the dream of a dream. It is Welles’s nightmare of an historical waking nightmare that we all share.
The Trial is Welles’s great lament for humanity’s inhumanity. It is a film mourning a world of justice and reason that it nevertheless knows existed in mind but never in time.
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