Thursday, 7 March 2013

Welles and Kafka: On Filming The Trial

The Trial (Directed by Orson Welles)
In discussing his 1962 film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s literary classic The Trial, Orson Welles confided to Peter Bogdanovich, that ‘what made it possible for me to make the picture is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life: I’m in prison and I don’t know why – going to be tried and I don’t know why. It’s very personal for me. A very personal expression, and it’s not all true that I’m off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it’s the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me. And just because it doesn’t speak in a Middle Western accent doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.’

Welles was 15 when his alcoholic father died and Welles later admitted to his biographer Barbara Leaming that he always felt guilt at refusing to see his father until he sobered up, and ‘that was the last I ever saw of him… I’ve always thought I killed him… I don’t want to forgive myself. That’s why I hate psychoanalysis. I think if you’re guilty of something you should live with it.’

The Trial was produced by Alexander Salkind, best known today for his Superman films. Welles hadn’t directed a movie since A Touch of Evil in 1958 and chose The Trial from a list of classic titles offered to him. The film was shot on a modest budget in France, Italy and Yugoslavia with a cast led by Anthony Perkins as Josef K, the guilt-ridden everyman arrested and prosecuted for an unspecified crime by a remote inaccessible authority.

On release the film was acclaimed in France, but poorly received in the United States. Now acknowledged as one of Welles’s finest achievements, it’s an imaginative adaptation that captures the novel’s dark humour and nightmarish atmosphere, using harsh eastern European cityscapes and the abandoned Gare d’Orsay, the belle époque station that later became the Musée d’Orsay. Welles himself plays the sinister advocate Hastler and dubbed most of the other characters in the English version. Welles spent five months on the meticulous editing and the result is a highly personal reading of a classic novel adapted to Welles’ own sensibility.

Speaking in 1981 Welles said, ‘in my reading of the book – and my reading is probably more wrong than a lot of people’s – I see the monstrous bureaucracy which is the villain of the piece as not only Kafka’s clairvoyant view of the future, but his racial and cultural background of being occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire… [So] I wanted a 19th century look for a great deal of what would be, in fact, expressionistic.’ 

After its release The Trial would go on to influence various films ranging from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) to Stephen Soderbergh’s 1992 arthouse thriller Kafka which integrates aspects of Kafka’s biography and fiction with a markedly noir visual style. 

In the following interview with the BBC in 1962, Orson Welles discusses his approach to filming The Trial with the broadcaster Huw Wheldon:


HUW WHELDON: Your film, The Trial, is based upon Franz Kafka’s stunning novel.

ORSON WELLES: Yes, I suppose you could say that, although you wouldn’t necessarily be correct. I’ve generally tried to be faithful to Kafka’s novel in my film but there are a couple of major points in my film that don’t correspond when reading the novel. First of all the character of Joseph K. in the film doesn’t really deteriorate, certainly doesn’t surrender at the end.

HW: He certainly does in the book, he’s murdered in the book.

OW: Yes, he is murdered in the end. He’s murdered in our film, but because I fear that K may be taken to be a sort of everyman by the audience, I have been bold enough to change the end to the extent that he doesn’t surrender. He is murdered as anyone is murdered when they’re executed, but where in the book he screams, ‘like a dog, like a dog you’re killing me!,’ in my version he laughs in their faces because they’re unable to kill him.

HW: That’s a big change.

OW: Not so big, because in fact, in Kafka they are unable to kill K. When the two out of work tenors are sent away to a field to murder K, they can’t really do it. They keep passing the knife back and forth to one another. K refuses to collaborate in his own death in the novel, it’s left like that and he dies with a sort of whimper. Now in the film, I’ve simply replaced that whimper with a bang.

HW: Did you ever think about ending the film with the two executioners stabbing K with the knife?

OW: No. To me that ending is a ballet written by a Jewish intellectual before the advent of Hitler. Kafka wouldn’t have put that in after the death of six million Jews. It all seems very much pre-Auschwitz to me. I don’t mean that my ending was a particularly good one, but it was the only possible solution. I had to step up the pace, if only for a few moments.


HW: Do you have any compunction about changing a masterpiece?

OW: Not at all, because film is quite a different medium. Film should not be a fully illustrated, all talking, all moving version of a printed work, but should be itself, a thing of itself. In that way it uses a novel in the same way that a playwright might use a novel – as a jumping off point from which he will create a completely new work. So no, I have no compunction about changing a book. If you take a serious view of filmmaking, you have to consider that films are not an illustration or an interpretation of a work, but quite as worthwhile as the original.

HW: So it’s not a film of the book, it’s a film based on the book?

OW: Not even based on. It’s a film inspired by the book, in which my collaborator and partner is Kafka. That may sound like a pompous thing to say, but I’m afraid that it does remain a Welles’ film and although I have tried to be faithful to what I take to be the spirit of Kafka, the novel was written in the early twenties, and this is now 1962, and we’ve made the film in 1962, and I’ve tried to make it my film because I think that it will have more validity if it’s mine.

HW: There have been many different readings of The Trial. Many people say that it’s an allegory of the individual against authority, others say that it’s symbolic of man fighting against implacable evil, and so on. Have you gone along with any such interpretations in your film?

OW: I think that a film ought to be, or a good film ought to be as capable of as many interpretations as a good book, and I think that it is for the creative artist to hold his tongue on that sort of question, so you’ll forgive me if I refuse to reply to you. I’d rather that you go and see the film, which should speak for itself and must speak for itself. I’d prefer that you make your own interpretation of what you think!


HW: I wasn’t surprised when I heard that you were making The Trial, because it seems that the process of investing ordinary events, with intonations and overtones, is very much part of your armory as a filmmaker. Do you think that Welles and Kafka go well together in this respect?

OW: It’s funny that you should say that because I was surprised when I heard that I was making The Trial. In fact, what surprised me was that it was done at all. It’s a very expensive film, it’s a big film. Certainly five years ago there is nobody who could have made it, nobody who could have persuaded distributors or backers or anybody else to make it. But the globe has changed recently. There is a new moment in filmmaking and I don’t mean by that, that we’re better filmmakers, but that the distribution system has broken down a little and the public is more open, more ready for difficult subjects. So what’s remarkable is that The Trial is being made by anybody! It’s such an avant-garde sort of thing.

HW: Is it significant that films such as The Trial can now be produced on large budgets, for commercial cinema audiences?

OW: Oh it’s wonderful, and it’s very hopeful. I mean there are all sorts of difficult subjects being made into mainstream pictures nowadays and they are doing well. People are going to see them. Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. I mean, I don’t like them, but I’m so glad that they were made. It doesn’t matter that I don’t like them. Resnais would probably hate The Trial, but what matters is that a difficult and on the face of it, an experimental, film got made, and is being shown and is competing commercially! In other words what is dying is the purely commercial film, at least that is the great hope!


HW: What would The Trial have been like if it had been made, say, five years ago?

OW: I don’t think it would have been made five years ago, but if it had, it would only have gone to the art theaters and would have been made as a slender, difficult, experimental sort of film. Instead of being made as this is with Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider – you know, a big star cast, big picture! Imagine what that means, what it means for me to have had the chance to make it, indeed to have had the chance to work. This is the first job that I’ve gotten as a director in four years!

HW: The fact is, you’re in love with the movies, aren’t you?

OW: That’s my trouble! You see, if I’d only stayed in the theater, I could have worked steadily, without stopping for all these years. But, having made one film, I decided that it was the best and most beautiful form that I knew and one that I wanted to continue with. I was in love with it as you say, really tremendously so.

HW: There exists a scene of a computer scientist, played by Katina Paxinou, that is no longer in the film. She tells K his most likely fate is that he will commit suicide.

OW: Yes, that was a long scene that lasted ten minutes, which I cut on the eve of the Paris premiere. Joseph K has his fortune told by a computer – that’s what the scene amounted to. It was my invention. The computer tells him his fate. I only saw the film as a whole once. We were still in the process of doing the mixing, and then the premiere fell on us. At the last moment I abridged the scene. It should have been the best in the film and it wasn’t. Something went wrong, I don’t know why, but it didn’t succeed. The subject of that scene was free will. It was tinged with black humor; that was my main weapon. As you know, it is always directed against the machine and in favor of freedom.


HW: Why did you shoot so much of the film in Yugoslavia?

OW: It seems to me that the story we’re dealing with is said to take place ‘anywhere’. But of course there is no ‘anywhere’. When people say that this story can happen anywhere, you must know what part of the globe it really began in. Now Kafka is central European and so to find a middle Europe, some place that had inherited something of the Austro-Hungarian empire to which Kafka reacted, I went to Zagreb. I couldn’t go to Czechoslovakia because his books aren’t even printed there. His writing is still banished there.

HW: Would you have gone to Czechoslovakia, were you able?

OW: Yes, I never stopped thinking that we were in Czechoslovakia. As in all of Kafka, it’s supposed to be Czechoslovakia. The last shot was in Zagreb, which has old streets that look very much like Prague. But you see, capturing that flavor of a modern European city, yet with its roots in the Austro-Hungarian empire wasn’t the only reason why we shot in Yugoslavia. The other reason was that we had a big industrial fair to shoot in. We used enormous buildings, much bigger than any film studio. There was one scene in the film where we needed to fit fifteen hundred desks into a single building space and there was no film studio in France or Britain that could hold fifteen hundred desks. The big industrial fair grounds that we found in Zagreb made that possible. So we had both that rather sleazy modern, which is a part of the style of the film, and these curious decayed roots that ran right down into the dark heart of the 19th century.


HW: You shot a lot of the film in Paris, at an abandoned railway station, the Gare d’Orsay.

OW: Yes, there’s a very strange story about that. We shot for two weeks in Paris with the plan of going immediately to Yugoslavia where our sets would be ready. On Saturday evening at six o’clock, the news came that the sets not only weren’t ready, but the construction on them hadn’t even begun. Now, there were no sets, nor were there any studios available to build sets in Paris. It was Saturday and on Monday we we’re to be shooting in Zagreb! We had to cancel everything, and apparently to close down the picture. I was living at the Hotel Meurice on the Tuilleries, pacing up and down in my bedroom, looking out of the window. Now I’m not such a fool as to not take the moon very seriously, and I saw the moon from my window, very large, what we call in America a harvest moon. Then, miraculously there were two of them. Two moons, like a sign from heaven! On each of the moons there were numbers and I realized that they were the clock faces of the Gare d’Orsay. I remembered that the Gare d’Orsay was empty, so at five in the morning I went downstairs, got in a cab, crossed the city and entered this empty railway station where I discovered the world of Kafka.

The offices of the advocate, the law court offices, the corridors – a kind of Jules Verne modernism that seems to me quite in the taste of Kafka. There it all was, and by eight in the morning I was able to announce that we could shoot for seven weeks there. If you look at many of the scenes in the movie that were shot there, you will notice that not only is it a very beautiful location, but it is full of sorrow, the kind of sorrow that only accumulates in a railway station where people wait. I know this sounds terribly mystical, but really a railway station is a haunted place. And the story is all about people waiting, waiting, waiting for their papers to be filled. It is full of the hopelessness of the struggle against bureaucracy. Waiting for a paper to be filled is like waiting for a train, and it’s also a place of refugees. People were sent to Nazi prisons from there, Algerians were gathered there, so it’s a place of great sorrow. Of course, my film has a lot of sorrow too, so the location infused a lot of realism into the film.


HW: Did using the Gare d’Orsay change your conception of the film?

OW: Yes, I had planned a completely different film that was based on the absence of sets. The production, as I had sketched it, comprised sets that gradually disappeared. The number of realistic elements were to become fewer and fewer and the public would become aware of it, to the point where the scene would be reduced to free space as if everything had dissolved. The gigantic nature of the sets I used is, in part, due to the fact that we used this vast abandoned railway station. It was an immense set.

HW: How do you feel about The Trial? Have you pulled it off?

OW: You know, this morning when I arrived on the train, I ran into Peter Ustinov and his new film, Billy Budd has just opened. I said to him, ‘how do you feel about your film, do you like it?’ He said, ‘I don’t like it, I’m proud of it!’ I wish that I had his assurance and his reason for assurance, for I’m sure that is the right spirit in which to reply. I feel an immense gratitude for the opportunity to make it, and I can tell you that during the making of it, not with the cutting, because that’s a terrible chore, but with the actual shooting of it, that was the happiest period of my entire life. So say what you like, but The Trial is the best film I have ever made.

HW: How do you react to the question of your audience?

OW: Ah, that’s an interesting thing. It seems to me that the great gift of the film form, to the director, is that we are not forced to think of the audience. In fact, it is impossible to think of our audience. If I write a play, I must inevitably be thinking in terms of Broadway or the West End. In other words, I must visualize the audience that will come in; its social class, its prejudices and so on. But with a film, we never think of the public at all, we simply make the film the same way you sit down and write a book, and hope that they will like it. I have no idea what the public will make of The Trial. Imagine the freedom of that! I just make The Trial and then we’ll see what they think of it. The Trial is made for no public, for every public, not for this year, for as long as the film may happen to be shown. That is the gift of gifts.

HW: Thank you, Orson Welles. I hope that we enjoy watching it, as much as you enjoyed making it.

OW: Oh, so do I. Thank you.

– ‘Orson Welles on The Trial’. Interviewed on the BBC in 1962 By Huw Wheldon.

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