In the following essay, I would like to expose my interpretation of The Trial as written by Franz Kafka published after his death in 1925 and then adapted in a film by Orson Welles in 1962. The images in this article are extracted from this movie.
The Trial carries all the characteristics of a dream. The fact that Joseph K. is in bed in the first line of the novel –he is even sleeping in the film- is only a clue in that direction. Just like a dream, the whole narrative is centered on his person and nothing seems to exist where he is not here.
The dream is then shared between elements of K.’s fantasies and fears which can categorize this dream as a nightmare. On the one hand, all along the narrative, K. distributes orders and accomplish eloquent speeches that express a fantasy for power that Orson Welles’ character –played by Anthony Perkins- does not seem to inherently own when one observes his non-charismatic presence. This paradox goes even much further with his surprising success with women who all fall for him with such easiness that can only be expressed by fantasy. We will find again such fantasy in The Castle the main character who shares his name with K.
From then, paranoia can be implemented as each man becomes a threat either for him and his judicial case or for “his” women who all end up kidnapped by other men. Orson Welles even illustrates such a “kidnapping” by a scene in which a woman who just got seduced by K. is carried by a magistrate in a very expressive position which recalls Jean Boulogne’s Rape of the Sabine Women.
The paranoia is also enunciated by K. during his audition in the court room, when he denounces a transcendental power persecuting him:
“There is no doubt,” he said quietly, “that there is some enormous organization determining what is said by this court. In my case this includes my arrest and the examination taking place here today, an organization that employs policemen who can be bribed, oafish supervisors and judges of whom nothing better can be said than that they are not as arrogant as some others. This organization even maintains a high-level judiciary along with its train of countless servants, scribes, policemen and all the other assistance that it needs, perhaps even executioners and torturers.” (translation by David Wyllie)
This hypothesis of a transcendence “ruling the machine” is the key question of The Trial. The literal theory of a conspiracy is definitely the less interesting hypothesis. However, we can wonder if the bureaucratic system acquired its own transcendence that now escapes from any kind of human control, or if only the almost religious perception of this machine carries this transcendence when its functioning is actually operative only by immanence. When those two hypotheses are observed in a more precise way, they appear to be the same. This is even more accurate in the case we are interested here, which is to say that The Trial is actually a dream. In fact, it is not important if the transcendence is real or only perceived as such, since the narrative is nothing else than a pure perception without back face.
In the former paragraph, I was evoking the notion of control which is fundamental in the novel just as much as in the movie. Kafka is indeed the inventor of a new type of labyrinth. This invention stands far from the classical and transcendental paradigm of the labyrinth that sees its author, who looks at it from above, being amused of those confused bodies mistreated by architecture. On the contrary Kafka’s labyrinth celebrates its immanence by including his author, lost, within the labyrinth. Kafka gives us a lot of clues in this direction, the name of the character K. who can be associated to himself, the policemen from the beginning being punished as well by the machine they’re serving, and the obvious absence of control from anybody over this system. However, Orson Welles goes even further by playing himself the role of the lawyer. By doing so, he is able to create an additional event that celebrates the loss of control of the author for his work. In fact, the film incorporates the scene written by Kafka in which K. dismisses the lawyer from his service provoking the latter’s fury and the desperation of the woman Leni. Since he plays the role of the lawyer, Orson Welles dramatizes this moment of loss of control by representing the actor dismissing the director without ending the film. Transcendence is therefore dismissed but K. has then to experience the even more frightening power of immanence.
The space of such labyrinth has therefore a fundamental importance and is expressed in a similar ways by Kafka and Welles. Spaces are continuous and seem to be included one into another which accentuates the impossibility of an exit. The heterogeneity of architectural styles in the film (modern, neo-classic, gothic…) would seem to diminish the labyrinthine effect as they create locality; nevertheless, by being contiguous to each other, they maintain the feeling of a unique endless building with no exteriority. Claustrophobia, in this narrative, is not provoked by the shortness of spaces encountered but by their greatness that was expressing the weight of transcendence. When the latter is dissolved in the film, K. has to run away through a very narrow corridor of lines that seems to absorb the character while he is chased by a crowd of frightening children whose laughs and screams accentuate the paranoia.
Kafka’s labyrinth opens the chapter of Modern literature for reasons that are partially independent of him. In fact, he never finished The Trial and wanted it to be part of the work to burn after his death. Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, not only decided to save it from fire but had to reassemble the disorganized chapters in an order that was probably not Kafka’s choice. The labyrinth that even loses its author was therefore achieved. Only the last chapter of the book damages this achievement as it imposes an end when the whole narrative seemed to direct towards its infinity. Only infinity was prolonging the nightmare long enough to veritably characterize it as such.
One could then argue that death has to be present in order to tackle the question of freedom. The real freedom as expressed in The Trial is the acceptance of the sentence as we see it in the last chapter of the novel. The Trial is therefore a disease that confronts K. to his imminent death and makes him freer than the man –called Block in the novel- whose trial’s procedure (here, the disease) did not even start and who let himself being humiliated by the lawyer. As the latter points out in the same scene, “it is often better to be in chains than to be free”. K. is indeed confronted to this question after he almost fainted from the saturated air of the Court House and that a woman, guiding him to an exit, asks him: “Why don’t you go out? That’s what you wanted!”
Preparing this essay, I even thought at the Kubler-Ross model published in 1969 that establishes the five behavioral steps of the disease, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that seemed to match more or less accurately to the narrative. However, it appears to me as a mistake to insist on this metaphor of the disease against the one of the dream as such a process implies a strict chronology which contradicts by definition the immanent labyrinth I have been presenting so far.
Death has therefore to be thought in a non chronological way and the dream allows us to think about it in this way. In fact, death can perhaps be characterized by an absolute suspension of time that leads to a perceived infinity of dream tending to death without ever reaching it. One could then draw curves of time as it is perceived by those who are subjected to it. When living beings would be characterized by a linear curve, dead beings would be characterized by an asymptotic function starting at the moment of their death.
Of course this hypothesis repudiates the last chapter of The Trial as such. In Kafka Toward a Minor Literature, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari evokes the hypothesis that this chapter was maybe a dream done by K. somewhere in the middle of the narrative. In the case I am exposing here, in which the whole narrative is a dream, this last chapter might be, on the contrary, the only moment of reality. In that case, and following the hypothesis of curves of times I just evoked, this last chapter would in fact be the first one, the one that allows the infinite dream to begin.