“Before the law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’ These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone…”
So begins Orson Welles’ 1962 film adaptation of The Trial, a famed dystopian novel written by Franz Kafka. The story focuses on a man named Joseph K. (played by Anthony Perkins) who finds himself one morning under open arrest without any idea of what he is being charged. From the moment of his arrest, his life begins to spiral into confusion and feelings of hopelessness as he attempts to unravel and defy the strange judicial system under which he is being persecuted. The film culminates in his death by dynamite, with the last image of the film being a mushroom cloud reminiscent of the atom bomb anxieties experienced across Cold War America.
This opening anecdote about the doorkeeper of the Law contains the sum of the film’s entire story: Joseph K., who seems unaware of the nature of the society in which he lives and who continues to believe he has every right to know why and for what he is being arrested, is caught in a maze of barriers to this knowledge. From the policemen who enter his room uninvited that one fateful morning, to his extremely unhelpful lawyer (played by Orson Welles himself), to the magistrates and jurors who view his and every other trial presented to them as a show put on just for their entertainment, everything seems to stack against the accused man and his quest to gain “admittance to the Law.”
Unlike the man in the doorkeeper story, however, Joseph K. remains determined and fights for his admittance rather than waiting for it to come to him. Although his efforts are ultimately unsuccessful, Joseph defies the oppression of the justice system even into the very last second of his life. Perhaps the first instant in which viewers are exposed to his defiance is in the first scene of the film, when his room and that of his roommate (who also happens to be the object of his infatuation) are invaded by policemen. In fact, he does not even bother to do so much as get out of bed until about five minutes into his conversation with the officer. As his room and Miss Burstner’s are searched without the presence of a warrant, Joseph demands explanations, grabs objects out of the officers’ hands and even attempts to dictate to them what and what not to record of the conversation on their notepads.
Another instance of Joseph K. railing against authority figures arrives with the court scene, in which he gives an impassioned speech declaring his innocence to a room of ignorant jurors and magistrates. After being swept away from his beloved job as a high-ranking bank clerk into what seems to him an impromptu court hearing, Joseph quickly gains composure and, without a lawyer at this point in the film, defends himself in a surprisingly confident manner given the confusion of the situation and the little knowledge he possesses about the crime he is supposed to have committed. However, he unfortunately finds that despite an initial sense of victory brought on by the court members applauding and cheering at every word he says, in the end they are applauding not out of agreement or sympathy, but out of the impression that Joseph is there to entertain them. This becomes clear when, presumably out of boredom, the shift their attention to what appears to be a lovemaking session between a man and the receptionist who had ushered Joseph into the courthouse. Realizing that his efforts to make a case for his innocence are fruitless in this circus of a trial, he loudly confronts the jurors and magistrates about their ignorance and storms out of the courthouse, pushing away the men on his way out and barely noticing the baffled looks on their faces. It is clear from the reactions of the jurors and magistrates that this is not what an accused man is supposed to do: he is supposed to plead his case desperately even if no one is listening, not insult the very men responsible for getting him “off the hook” and blaze out of hearing completely.
The final acts of Joseph’s shortened life are no less exemplary of his defiance against the system. The first of these in his dismissal of his lawyer, known by all as “The Advocate.” After choosing to be defended by the Advocate on the suggestion of his concerned uncle, Joseph soon discovers that the bed-ridden lawyer’s presence (or lack thereof) is utterly pointless, as he has done nothing to improve his case, has given him no further knowledge about why he is being accused, and even refuses to see Joseph at first when he arrives at the Advocate’s home. Taking these facts into consideration, Joseph thus sets out to dismiss the Advocate’s services completely. The point at which he finally does so becomes rather chaotic as he is surrounded by a cacophony of pleas by Leni, the Advocate’s lover who sleeps with every accused man who comes into her presence, and Bloch, another of the Advocate’s clients who lives in a tiny maid’s room within the lawyer’s house just in the hopes that he will once in a while get to speak with his supposed defender. However, Joseph ignores their begging and, just as he stormed out of the courthouse during his hearing, breaks down the door of the lawyer’s home and stalks off into the rain. Even when the typically lazing Advocate gets out of bed to give one last warning against firing him (during a scene in which Orson Welles, playing the Advocate, recites the parable of the doorkeeper of the Law), Joseph defies this demand.
Soon after this occurs, Joseph is informed by a priest that he has been convicted and sentenced to execution that very evening. In the last few minutes of the film, he is whisked away by two men in trench coats – his executioners – to a quarry, into which he is dumped and wordlessly instructed to remove his clothing. The executioners then join him in the ditch and pass back and forth a sharpened knife, with the implication that he must execute himself with it. In his very last act of defiance, Joseph plainly states that he refuses to kill himself, thus sticking to his usual habit of confronting authority figures rather than preserving himself. He does not fight for his life or plea for mercy – as the two executioners climb out of the quarry, take out a bundle of dynamite and throw it to where the sentenced man is standing, Joseph yells repeatedly and in an increasingly crazed manner: “YOU have to kill me!” He continues to scream these words even as he catches the dynamite in his hand and, a few short seconds later, is killed in a massive explosion.
Though in this particular story the hero’s defiance against a harmful authority figure does not end in triumph, Welles has, through his modernized adaptation of Kafka’s novel, related to audiences a sense of the importance of remaining true to oneself and what is right: Joseph did just this, even if it did end in his self-condemnation and death.
Written by: Victoria Brathwaite
Adams , Jeffrey. “Orson Welles’s “The Trial”: Film Noir and the Kafkaesque.” College Literature. 29.3 (2002): 140-157. Web.