Thursday, July 04, 2013

Culture Shock 07.04.13: In 'The Trial' we're all guilty of everything

"Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."

So begins Franz Kafka's absurdist novel of bureaucracy, totalitarianism and paranoia, "The Trial."

Orson Welles directed a 1962 film version starring Anthony Perkins, who once told a revealing story about the direction Welles gave him. As I recall, the story went something like this:

Perkins was having difficulty finding an approach to the role of Joseph K. that Welles liked. So he asked Welles how he should play the part.

"Play him as if he's guilty," Welles said.

"Guilty of what?"


That bit of direction makes all the difference. The Joseph K. described by Kafka's omniscient narrator is, we're led to believe, blameless, a victim of "lies." The Joseph K. played by Perkins, on the other hand, is guilty. He's been found out, but no one will tell him the crime he's accused of committing, and it could be anything — or everything.

It shows in Perkins' brilliant and overlooked performance. His Joseph K. is twitchy, nervous and paranoid. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Nor does it mean you're innocent.

That's the insight Welles brings to the material. There are no innocents; we're all guilty of something. It's no accident that Welles paints his version of "The Trial" in the stark black and white of film noir, a genre he knew well from having made "Touch of Evil" and "The Lady from Shanghai." Everyone in film noir is compromised in some way, and Welles' "The Trial" does Kafka one better.

Welles says we're not only all the potential victims of faceless bureaucrats and politicians, we all have it coming, too.

That isn't to say all crimes are equal. Sometimes all it takes is a small crime, maybe even a crime you didn't know was a crime or that you committed.

In his book "Three Felonies a Day," Boston-based attorney Harvey Silvergate argues that because of the proliferation of complex and vague laws, the average American commits three felonies a day. That's felonies with an F, not merely petty crimes like speeding or jaywalking. That leaves all of us at the mercy and caprice of bureaucrats and prosecutors. So much for the rule of law. In the "Land of the Free," you're free only because no one has thought to lock you up.

So you say to yourself, "That can't be! I haven't committed any crimes. What crimes could I possibly have committed?"

Now you know exactly how Joseph K. feels. Is that a little bit of sweat starting to form on your upper lip, by chance? Is it starting to show? Do you look guilty? You sure look guilty to me.

So does Joseph K., who, under Welles' direction in this neglected and underrated film — I think it's one of his best — becomes a film noir everyman, undone by a deadly combination of the system, femme fatales (Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli) and his own sins, whatever they might be, because they could be anything.

"The Trial" is gorgeously shot by Edmond Richard, who would go on to shoot Luis Buñuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." Taking advantage of location shooting in Croatia, he and Welles create a surreal, off-kilter environment of such immense scale that it threatens to swallow K. even as he attempts to navigate its shadowy corridors.

The system is bigger than any of us.

Welles' "The Trial" is available on DVD and Netflix instant.

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