top of page

Orson Welles makes it personal in Kafka’s classic “The Trial”

Updated: Oct 16, 2023


Anthony Perkins stars as Josef K. a young bureaucrat, arrested for an unnamed crime. He appears in front of the magistrate and a huge courtroom crowd. K is interrogated by a police detective (Jess Hahn).

(Click on an image to scroll through the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray, 1962, unrated

Best extra: Commentary by film historian and biographer Joseph McBride

THE GREAT Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil”) took on one of the classics of modern literature when he adapted Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” for the screen.

The term “Kafkaesque” derives from the plot, which involves a young bureaucrat, Josef K. played by Anthony Perkins (“Psycho”), whose life is turned upside down after he’s arrested without being charged with a crime. K tries to navigate the insane, convoluted legal system, and encounters a variety of oddballs and ominous situations, but never discovers what he’s accused of. An allusion to what run-ins with the law are like under a totalitarian regime, Kafka’s novel was written in 1914-15, and published after his death in 1925. Welles, who left the U.S. as a result of being blacklisted thanks to Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, had a special affinity to the subject matter. While Welles had never joined the American Communist Party, he was a lifelong political and social progressive, and had no intention of naming names if called before the committee.

Welles plays the “Advocate” in “The Trial,” supported by other stellar co-stars such as Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Akim Tamiroff, and Elsa Martinelli. Shot in black and white, mostly in enormous, labyrinthine interiors, “The Trial” leads viewers down a dark, expressionistic rabbit hole, seasoned with enough absurd humor to keep the film from being unceasingly bleak.

(1) Inspector A (Arnoldo Foà) and his two detectives place K under arrest. (2) Three men from K’s office join the police. (3) “It seems you are under arrest, Mr. K,” says landlady Mrs. Grubach (Madeleine Robinson). “Yes, I know that,” he says. “But not the way a thief’s put under arrest. No, with your arrest, I get the feeling of something abstract, if you see what I mean,” she says. (4) Inspector A continues the questioning.


The 4K restoration of the original camera negative (1.66:1 aspect ratio) was handled by the folks at StudioCanal and Cinémathèque Française in France, with a sizable grant from fashion/fragrance giant Chanel. At first, it seems strange the Criterion disc is without HDR grading, while the 2022 U.K. StudioCanal 4K release included HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

The restoration work is top-notch, removing all imperfections, while leaving a fine wash of natural film grain from start to finish. But, after a close examination, the HDR grading from the U.K. disc doesn’t add any expansive grayscale from highlights to shadows. Both 4K discs have excellent grayscale with deep shadows, strong mid-tones, and bright and controlled highlights. But one element does stand out; Criterion’s 4K was encoded with a much higher video bit rate. It consistently runs from 20 Megabits per second to 60 Mbps more than the StudioCanal disc. And, the results extract more defined film grain, with the slightest increase in fine detail.

The enclosed Blu-ray disc also features the 4K mastering, with a balanced grayscale, but a slight reduction in onscreen resolution – especially evident during K’s appearance in front of the magistrate with hundreds of eyewitnesses.

(1) Neighbor Miss Bürstner (Jeanne Moreau) arrives at her apartment after a late night at the nightclub. (2) The Deputy manager (Maurice Teynac) from K’s office tells him, “You’re a bright young man, one of the brightest. On the way up. Don’t spoil things for yourself.” (3) A three-and-half-minute tracking shot filmed in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), follows K and an older woman dragging a chest of Miss Bürstner’s belongings. (4-6) K still attends the opera, but is interrupted by a note from Inspector A who leads him through a labyrinth of corridors, and K pasts several hundred prisoners heading toward the courthouse.


The original mono soundtrack has also been restored removing all pops and tape hiss with a new front and centered uncompressed LPCM 24-bit track. You can clearly hear the majority of the dialogue was looped during post-production, like Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Music features Jean Ledrut’s jazzy score and the frequent solemn excerpts from Albinoni’s well-known “Adagio.”


The bonus features won’t disappoint. In addition to the lush commentary by film historian and Welles biographer McBride, there’s a delightful Q&A session from 1981, in which the director entertains queries from UCLA film students; a charming 1972 episode from French television, with Jeanne Moreau interviewing Welles (mostly in French) in a restaurant; an interesting featurette with cinematographer Edmond Richard (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), who was DP on “The Trial”; and an essay by the author Jonathan Lethem.

In his commentary, McBride says Welles regarded “The Trial” as funny, and saw Kafka as “essentially a comic artist.” Welles once said that making the film was “one of the happiest times of his life,” during which he had “creative carte blanche.” McBride talks about the Russian producer father and son, Alexander and Michael Salkind, who suggested Welles direct “The Trial.” Due to the Salkinds’ recurring money problems, however, Welles had to find an economical place to shoot the bulk of the film when they couldn’t afford filming in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia).

(1&2) K arrives 65 minutes late to the courtroom filled with hundreds of only male spectators. (3&4) The troubled K returns to work.

Welles was superstitious about the moon, and one night in Paris he looked out his window and thought he saw two of them. They were actually illuminated clocks on the nearby, nearly-empty Gare d’Orsay railroad station. To Welles, a train station was “full of sorrow … a haunted place of refugees,” and therefore the perfect backdrop for “The Trial.” Today, that station is the famous Musée d’Orsay. McBride notes that Welles made nothing on the film, after putting about $80,000 of his own money into it. Always trying to be economical, he dubbed the voices of twelve of the film’s characters, including ten lines of Perkins’, because it was too expensive to hire the actors back for post-production.

The irony of the film and novel’s title is that a trial never takes place – it’s a “process,” reflecting the French word for trial, “procès.” Welles strongly disagreed with the novel’s conclusion in which Josef K. “dies like a dog.” The director felt that Kafka wouldn’t have ended it that way, had he lived at a later time and known about the Second World War. Welles “couldn’t bear the defeat of K” because of the Holocaust, about which he declared, “We’re all Jewish.” Therefore, Welles has K “defy his executioners” and “show man in his final hour, undefeated.”

McBride says that Welles didn’t like “overt symbolism,” so he didn’t want the explosion at the end to look like a mushroom cloud, with all that image implied. But no matter how many times it was tried, the cloud from the dynamite always formed a mushroom – so Welles had to leave it that way.

Welles, notes McBride, never had another commercial success after “The Trial,” but continued to make more films. When he died, at age 70, he was in the process of typing a movie script.

— Peggy Earle

(1&2) Uncle Max (Max Haufler) takes K to see Hastler (Orson Welles), who agrees to act as his defense attorney. (3) Hastler’s nurse and mistress, Leni (Romy Schneider) seduces K. (4&5) The next day he finds the courtroom empty and his teenage cousin Irmie (Naydra Shore) finds him outside the courthouse.


(1) K ends up in the empty law court office with three paintings he purchased from a local artist. (2&3) Hastler reappears and confirms the priest’s allegory assessment - of the man seeking admittance at the door of The Law but dies without gaining admittance. (4-6) In the early morning two executioners take K to a quarry at the edge of town.



bottom of page