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Power Politics and the Comedy of Place:
The Trial from Kafka to Welles

December 2001 | 1914, Franz Kafka started writing The Trial, an enigmatic novel hailed as one of his best works. In 1963, Orson Welles directed The Trial, a film regarded as one of his lesser works. Though the versions are very different, both men acknowledged that the subtle absurdity of the narrative needed matching subtle absurdity in the setting. In Kafka's novel, absurdity of setting comes about through class reversal, where the powerful are found in the tenements and the powerless are found in the gentry. In Welles's film, class structure is more conventional. However, absurdity of setting comes about through settings that put caricature-like emphasis on lines and awkward characters that are stuffed or left to drown in these settings. The role of place in place in both Kafka's and Welles' versions of The Trial give the narrative a sense of existential comedy.

In the novel, K. is both professionally and economically powerful: he holds a high position at the Bank, and he's the wealthiest boarder at Frau Grubach's house. But the invasion of his place is the first step in the erosion of his power. The Court warders, who acknowledge their own lack of power in saying that they are "not authorized" to reveal the reason for K.'s arrest (Kafka 3), nevertheless have the power to lock K. in his room, dictate his dress, and even eat his breakfast. The Court Inspector, who similarly acknowledges his lack of power and responsibility, arrives to control the proceedings and question K. In the rearrangement and use of Fraulein Burstner's apartment as a questioning room, Inspector's arrival marks the invasion of place beyond even K.'s territory. That K. is Frau Grubach's prized boarder makes no difference as K. is accused and pushed from room to room in his own house of residence.

Even Rabensteiner, Kullich, and Kaminer, ostensibly three of the lowest in the power hierarchy of the opening scene, are made powerful. K. thinks of these men as "subordinates" (Kafka 17), but the Inspector calls them "colleagues," and chooses them to escort K. back to the Bank. Before they leave, they have already made a mark on K.'s place by rearranging Fraulein Burstner's photographs. K. is indignant, but incapable of regaining his superior position to all of these men, both in terms of implicit power and explicit place.

Though the opening scene is the only one where K.'s home is invaded by Court officials, K.'s later attempt to gain sexual power causes him to lose ground. K. tries to possess Fraulein Burstner first through charm: when he goes to her room to apologize to her, he puts on a kind of show by reenacting that morning's events. He finishes by planting kisses all over Fraulein Burstner's face, but though she does not resist, she does not succumb to K., and eventually she makes him leave her room. Fraulein Burstner's place is later made explicitly off-limits to K. when K. comes across Fraulein Montag moving in with Fraulein Burstner. K., who thought he could easily win control over a "silly typist" like Fraulein Burstner, again loses power in a situation where the ostensibly less powerful take control of place.

The reversal of power in K.'s world is highlighted in his visit outside of his own place to the Court offices. First, the Court makes a 'virtual' invasion of K's workplace by telephoning K. and summoning him to his first interrogation. Though the Court's ineffectuality is hinted at in its negligence to tell K. the time of the interrogation, K. again cedes power to the Court by attempting to go at all. On the tram ride, K. spots Rabensteiner, Kullich, and Kaminer. These men, who first gained power over K. in K.'s own home, seem to be spying on K. now, reversing the power balance even more.

K. arrives at the Court to find it housed in "high grey tenements inhabited by poor people" (Kafka 37). This is the first sign of a clear class reversal from the powerful to the powerless. K. was not told where his interrogation room is, and bewilderment overtakes his assuredness as he struggles his way through narrow streets and long hallways that contain a working class market, precocious urchin boys, and nearly-naked little girls. The de facto doorman to the Court is the washerwoman, and she is made powerful by her ability to look past's K.'s false "Lanz" story and identify him as the defendant.

From the Court room to the Court offices, K. slides deeper into the oppressive atmosphere of the tenement building. In the process, the emerging reversal of class erodes his power more and more. The medium-sized Court room is full of people dressed in old coats, people who are clearly poorer than K.-- yet it is these people that K. tries to win over in his grandiose statement before the Examining Magistrate, a man who uses pornography as a law book. The washerwoman who interrupts K.'s statement, the Examining Magistrate who derides that statement, and the law student who carries the washerwoman away from K-- all of these people work and probably live in the tenement, yet all of these people are able to gain legal or sexual advantage over K.

As K. tours the Court offices, the shoddy condition of the tenement building emphasizes the implication that the Court and its officials are economically beneath K. Doors do not fit frames, windows are small and dirty, and floor boards are so ill-fit that light emits from between their cracks. This class reversal is affirmed when K. meets other accused men, who are of the same economic class as K:

All of them were carelessly dressed, though to judge from the expression on their faces, their bearing, the cut of their beards, and many almost imperceptible little details, they obviously belonged to the upper classes (Kafka 68).

Even as K wonders what made these men "renounce their natural superiority," K.'s own superiority vanishes as the stale air of the Court offices proves too much for him to take. The housing standards of the Court offices make K. physically ill, and the fact that he is helped by the unaffected usher and girl only highlight that K. is too weak to exist in an environment that his "inferiors" work in every day. For the first time, K. loses physical as well as authoritarian power.

The tenement-based Court has invaded K.'s home; it has expelled K. from its own offices, and it finally invades K's place of work. When K finds Franz and Willem, the arrest warders, being flogged in the broom closet of the Bank, he is unable to summon the strength of will to stop the flogging. K does not want Franz and Willem to be flogged. However, K.'s overwhelming concern for his Bank position compels him to shut the broom closet door, muffling the loud screams of Franz and Willem. K.'s self-serving equivocation and inability to stand behind his moral principles leads to another loss of physical and authoritarian power-- all to a man who works in a broom closet.

The use of place as a means for class reversal allows Kafka to take aim at both the old and new economic systems permeating Europe at the time. By taking power from the economic elite and giving it to the working class, Kafka criticizes the complacent selfishness of the aristocracy that existed before the rise of the nation-state. But working class 'liberal capitalists' (Steiner xi) were not exempt from Kafka's criticism: their law system is just as corrupt, inefficient, and nonsensical as anything the aristocracy might fashion. The liberal capitalist system that arises as a result of the Industrial Revolution also serves to create vast hierarchies that alienate its workers, causing them to seek solace in pettiness and absurdity.

From K.'s place of residence, to K.'s place of work, to the place of the Court, the relatively powerful K. continues to lose power to a seemingly lesser man or woman. Part of the novel's comedy results from Kafka's treatment of K. as a reluctant traveler that is pushed around from place to place. With a level of guilelessness that is surprising for a man in his position, K. will go to any place-- the tenements, the broom closet-- to save face. Not only does the comedic chase from place to place degrade K.'s dignity, it exposes K. to many of the people to whom he loses sexual, physical, and authoritarian power. In of the novel's funniest scenes, K. loses all three kinds of power as the short-legged law student picks up the washerwoman and carries her away from the Court room, away from an outraged K.

The Welles film of The Trial extends the visual comedy of place by treating Anthony Perkins's tall, gangly body as a Gumby-like object that bends to the will of the set it is placed in. When Perkins is stuffed into a small set like the rooms of K.'s apartment building, the close-set walls serve to contort and stoop his body. It's as if the walls are aiding the Court in eroding K.'s power.

Perkins's body is just as awkward in most of the film's other sets, which are so large that they visually drown him out. The large sets also erode K.'s power. Instead of K. making his body small as he does in the smaller sets, K.'s body actually becomes small in relation to the huge, often maze-like rooms of the Court, the Bank, and the Advocate's house.

The sets of the indoor scenes seem to aid the people who are agents of K.'s loss of power. But the outdoor scenes that have no sets at all, like Miss Pittl's comedic exit and K.'s near-hysterical death, degrade K.'s power the most. In these scenes, K. is so small that he is alienated from the audience. In turn, the audience questions the importance K.'s plight, or the plight of any human, especially in relation to the plight of the environment being destroyed by humans. As a result of the film's severe camera angles and lighting, the environment is the only visual element that is consistently on eye level with the audience. We see K. and the other characters at low angles, high angles, and at a distance, but we are never consistently equal with them. Camera placement constructs audience sympathy for the settings and environments, a sympathy that is reinforced when explosives are used to kill K. The excessive force used for the death of one man expands into the destruction of the environment.

By changing the economic settings of the Court, Welles's film discards the class reversal that Kafka sets up in the novel. Instead of the Court being housed in a tenement building, Welles sets it in an ornate edifice. Again, Perkins's body is dwarfed, this time as he exits the Court house and passes an enormous Greco-Roman statue perched by the Court house's many steps. Even the inside of the Court sets up a class dynamic that differs from that of the novel. The Accused are not deflated members of the gentry, but rather emaciated, shirtless men who look like real prisoners. As the Court's economic status is raised in the film, K.'s economic status is lowered: he looks to be a lower-middles class clerk who lives in what looks like an inner-city housing project.

Just as Kafka used his novel to satirize the socioeconomic problems of his day, Welles uses his film to take aim at the Holocaust, McCarthyism, Hiroshima, and other WWII corruption. First there are the Accused men who look like inmates from the concentration camps. Then K. appears for his first interrogation to argue against an absurd accusation made by a biased court. This brings to mind Senator Joseph McCarthy's political hunt for American communists and the subsequent trials that destroyed the careers of many innocent people. Later, the film ends with K.'s murder by explosives. The cloud of dust the arises from the explosion-- and its aerial filming--evokes the famous images of the mushroom cloud that rose when Hiroshima was destroyed with a nuclear bomb. By having K. killed with an excessive amount of force, not only does Welles direct our sympathy toward the setting of the murder, but he also seems to imply that the nuclear bomb was an excessive use of force.

The film's sets and costumes indicate that it takes place many years after the novel takes place. Nevertheless, the Expressionist style of cinematography and the Modernist sets tie the film closely to the novel. Both artistic movements were well under way when Kafka wrote The Trial, which has an element of Expressionism in the way that Joseph K.'s inner turmoil is brought outward. Modernism, particularly the geometric Bauhaus and DeStijl styles evoked in the film, has intellectual roots in Expressionism (Minnesota Institute of Art). The social aim of Modernism against both old Historicsm and new Industry parallelsThe Trial's aim against old aristocracy and the new bureaucracy caused by the Industrial Revolution. With its dual focus on geometric and organic forms, Modernism is a reaction to the artistic tyranny of Historicism, and with its fusion of the decorative and fine arts, Modernism tries to escape the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial revolution.

Welles uses the gigantic Bank and Apartment sets to bring the film full circle to the novel by showing Modernism, originally a reaction against industry, being corrupted into a symbol for the oppressive nature of bureaucracy. The alienation of the clerk is a theme that that Kafka returns to again and again in The Trial and most of his other works. This theme is visually represented in the film by the endless rectilinear lines and multitudes of rows formed by desks, overhead lights, railings, windows, mirrors, drawers, and other synthetic structures. These lines are often used in framing shots of voyeuristic eyes spying on K., but more often the lines are used to visually imprison K. in his apartment and at his job.

Though Kafka and Welles versions of The Trial differ in the ways that they deal with class and politics, both are more likely to be classified as 'tragedy' than 'comedy.' Nevertheless, both versions play with place and setting to subtly frame the existential humor running through Joseph K.'s gradual loss of power. There is an absurdity to K.'s trial, but there is a larger absurdity to the corrupt systems that put him on trial.

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