Movie Review: The Trial

Movie Review: The Trial (1962)
Based on the novel by Franz Kafka
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, Orson Welles

The Trial opens with Joseph K, an everyman character, waking up at home. Two policemen come to his apartment and tell him he is under arrest, but they cannot tell him what he is charged with. They do not take him into custody. He talks to his neighbors, he goes to work, and everyone seems to know he has committed a crime but all have different ideas about what his crime is. The two policemen later return and take him to a courtroom for his trial. Instead of making everything clear, this begins a bizarre journey through a nightmare world of the law gone mad.


Many critics have called this “a masterpiece… the best film ever made about the law.” Orson Welles said in a BBC interview that it was “…the best film I ever made,” and many Orson Welles aficionados agree. However, just as many critics have called it “boring… an agonizing experience.” People have very strong positive or negative reactions to the film without much middle ground. You either love it or hate it. It’s either a masterpiece or a mess. Reactions to the film probably say more about the individual’s psychology than they do about the film itself. As for me, put me on the side of “disturbing masterpiece.”


This is not an easy film to watch. There is no straightforward plot. Instead, it is a series of surreal, nightmarish sequences blended together. This is the law as allegory. This is the emotional landscape of someone caught up in the process of the law and not understanding what’s happening. This is the law on steroids in the Twilight Zone.

If you’re familiar with Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” then you know what to expect visually. The film is black and white because it allows Welles’ characteristic use of darkness and light as artistic elements. Also present is Welles’ use of camera angles, especially the high angle vistas (such as endless rows of women at typewriters churning out legal documents that nobody will ever read). A unique use of camera angle in this film is the “no angle.” In shots where characters are in a room talking to each other, Welles keeps the camera perfectly flat and about at waist level. This simple trick produces a slight spatial disorientation that helps you feel the confusion and pressure that Joseph K is experiencing.

Ironically, the film itself exists in its own legal limbo. There were money and distribution problems with the film which, along with the quirky nature of the film, kept it from widespread distribution in American theaters. Nobody is even sure of the last time it was publicly shown in an American theater. In addition, Orson Welles speaks the end credits while the screen remains black, so there was never a copyright notice on the film. It lapsed into public domain and for many years the original 35mm print was lost.  Since The Trial is a public domain film, anyone can legally copy it, supply their own packaging, and sell it (same as with public domain books), but most of the videotape and DVD copies available over the years were 16mm transfers of very poor quality. It has always been one of those movies that many people talk about and few have seen. A good quality DVD copy was produced in 2000 from the rediscovered 35mm original. As a public domain film, it can be placed on the web for streaming viewing, but it cannot be made available for downloading on the web because its international copyright status is still disputed under the GATT treaty. I have a DVD copy, one of the good ones made from the 35mm original. I found it in the bargain bin at Hastings for 99 cents. Best 99 cents I ever spent!

Anyway, love it or hate it, you should give it a try because I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it, and I would consider it a must see for students of law, film, and literature.

Here is a link to the full length film on YouTube


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