The original Modern Library cover of Kafka’s The Trial.

The Trial  (Der Prozess)

  • Rank:  #6
  • Author:  Franz Kafka  (1883  -  1924)
  • Published:  1925
  • Publisher:  Verlag Die Schmiede
  • Pages:  341  (Vintage Definitive Edition)
  • First Line:  “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.”
  • Acclaim:  Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century
  • ML Version:  #318  (2 dust jackets – 1961, 1969)
  • Film:  1962  (*** – dir. Orson Welles); 1993
  • First Read:  Spring, 1995

The Novel:  Though The Trial wasn’t published until 1925, a year after its author’s death, it was mostly written in 1916 and 17.  This means that this dark visionary look at the show trials and miscarriages of justice that would be perpetrated so many times under Stalin and Hitler was entirely composed before either man had taken power.  What’s so incredible about this book is how true to what life soon would be.  Look at this scene, part-way through the book, and think of how easy it is to imagine after what Germany and the Soviet Union went through: “Naturally, therefore, the legal records of the case, and above all the actual charge-sheets, were inaccessible to the accused and his counsel, consequently one did not know in general, or at least did not know with any precision, what charges to meet in the first plea; accordingly it could be only by pure chance that it contained really relevant matter.”  We think of this stuff as coming straight from Orwell, but here it is in Kafka decades earlier.

From the minute that Joseph K. awakens, with these strange men in his room, his life is turned to utter shambles.  Yet, it is not just the closing in around him of the law, or the process of the law, since the law itself doesn’t ever seem to play a part in the book.  Kafka’s work turns into a somewhat combination of my two favorite artists: Dali and Escher.  It’s a surrealistic nightmare (” ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘it is not necessary to accept everything as true, only must only accept it as necessary.’  ‘A melancholy conclusion,’ said K.  ‘It turns lying into a universal principle.’ “), but at the same time, K. is climbing through staircases when it seems like he keeps coming back to the same spot without having actually gone anywhere (“K. turned toward the stairs to make his way up to the Court of Inquiry, but then came to a standstill again, for in addition to this staircase he could see in the courtyard three other separate flights of stairs and besides these a little passage at the other end which seemed to lead into a second courtyard.”).

But remember one important thing as you are reading it.  Kafka wasn’t in despair when writing this.  In fact, he would read it to friends and they would all laugh.  This is meant to be funny (“K. looked up at her almost dumfounded; now that she was so close to him she gave out a bitter exciting odor like pepper; she clasped his head to her, bent over him, and bit and kissed him on the neck, biting into the very hairs of his head.”).  Granted, it’s meant to be funny in the same way that I once wrote a term paper on Existentialism as a form of black humor, in that you laugh so you don’t cry, in the Mel Brooks idea of funny (“Tragedy is when I prick my finger.  Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die”), and the humor in this book is exactly that bleakest kind of humor (“He accepted it as a fundamental principle for an accused man to be always forearmed, never to let himself be caught napping, never to let his eyes stray unthinkingly to the right when his judge was looming up on the left – and against that very principle he kept offending again and again.”).  It is in fact the very darkness of the entire human race.  It’s not that it’s funny that Joseph K. is arrested for something he hasn’t even done (we know he’s done nothing wrong – the first sentence of the book tells us that), but that he meekly goes forward.  We may think that he’s trying to fight back, to buck the system, that there is a stand to be made in the way that he refuses to simply kill himself.  But remember, he does die like a dog, and these are hardly the words describing a man with any rebellious spirit: “During the next week K. waited day after day for a new summons, he would not believe that his refusal to be interrogated had been taken literally, and when no appointment was made by Saturday evening, he assumed that he was tacitly expected to report himself again at the same address and at the same time.”  Perhaps the true dark humor is that so many would blindly walk forward and to those interrogations again and again and that there really is no hope for all of us.  I find it funny, anyhow.

note:  all quotes from the translation by Willa and Edwin Muir (revised by E. M. Butler)

The poster for Orson Welles’ 1962 film version of Kafka’s The Trial.

The Film:  It is difficult to do satire on film – especially satire on such a dark level.  But it is even harder to adapt a novel as darkly satiric as The Trial into a film and make it worthwhile.  That he succeeded in doing it all is a testament to the overwhelming talent that was Orson Welles.  But Orson Welles always was, with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, the most talented man to ever come into Hollywood and take over the train set.  There but for the grace of God, goes God, was said about him in his early days.  And any other man who had attempted this film, especially with the budget limitations that he had, would have failed.

Not that the film is a complete success.  There are scenes that are clearly the work of a limited budget and Welles was doing the best that he could.  And his cast was such a mishmash that he supposedly dubbed 11 different speaking voices himself.  And there are the inherent problems with adapting satire, as I mentioned – that things that work on the page because we have to use our imagination seem to strain against any level of credulity when shown to us on the screen.  But some of that works better than you would expect precisely because Joseph K. is such a milksop of a character that he doesn’t know what to do and he eventually allows himself to settle into his fate.

But there are strengths to this film as well.  The sets of the film are wonderfully done – from the very bare necessities present in K.’s apartment (probably a limitation of budget, but it works effectively) to the nightmarish Orwellian set of an office where K. works, to the decrepit shack of the artist which then opens to the file rooms of the court.  We go from moments of total claustrophobia to wide open spaces where it seems like anything can happen, and unlike in Welles’ Othello, where this is clearly because two successive scenes were shot months apart, this just seems to be the kind of world that K. inhabits and the cinematography and the art direction work together in this way.

Then there are the performances.  While Anthony Perkins will be so long remembered as Norman Bates, this allows him to play on the weakling role that Bates has early in the film.  And then there is Orson Welles as the advocate, his deep voice providing a measure of authority that no one else could have done in that role.

Then we come to the ending.  K., of course, in the novel, dies like a dog, stabbed in the heart by the men because he couldn’t or wouldn’t do it himself.  But here, he tries to rebel a little, blatantly refusing to do it, only to have them walk away.  But of course, he doesn’t escape and it almost seems worse when they simply launch the dynamite upon him and obliterate him from this life.

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