The first live action sequence in Orson Welles’s ‘The Trial’ provides the initial insight into the conflict about to enter the life of protagonist Josef K.
As the Before the Law prologue concludes, the final image is the door.
The voice-over by Welles puts forward the idea that Kafka’s story has ‘the logic of a dream, of a nightmare’. The door frame dissolves into the next image of K sleeping.
A dissolve is used, rather than a straight cut, to imply a passing of time and to suggest an ‘hallucinatory state’ (Prunes, M 2002). The composition on screen of K’s sleeping face provides a further link with the vocal narration. His forehead is composed on the 2nd vertical division of thirds. This framing combines with the key light on the top portion of his head to ‘signpost’ the viewers’ eyes into his dreaming mind. (Van Sijll, J 2001, p20). So a purposeful and dramatic connection is made, allowing the audience to believe that K’s dream is connected to the Kafka parable.
The next cut is to a shot of the connecting doors in K’s apartment.
The style of the double-doors and the framing on screen is remarkably similar in style to those in the prologue so once again forces a connection to the parable sequence. This familiarity is heightened by the use of light appearing to ‘leak’ under the doors in a similar way.
The doors have a menacing quality achieved through the use of a very low camera angle and a slight camera tilt. The doors start to open slowly, leading to the questions ‘what may be about to enter?’ and ‘why are they moving so slowly?’ Anticipation builds but the viewer is left to ponder while a cut is made back to K waking up.
As the inspector enters, we see a beautifully composed two shot over K’s shoulder. The composition of the two men along thirds and the deep perspective due to the wide angle lens creates a feeling of separation between the men.
This combines with the highly contrasted lighting – K in the dark and the inspector illuminated. As Cinematographer Edmond Richard discusses (Edmond, R ) a large white card was set up outside the window on the Boulogne studio to bounce a diffused morning light simulation. The light spilling from behind the curtains onto the wall just enough to create a menacing silhouette shape of the inspector while side-lighting his face.
The light from this set-up changes when the inspector opens the curtains, directing light onto K in almost the same way a light is shone toward someone in an interrogation room. The ceilings in the room are abnormally low, contributing to this claustrophobic, interrogation feeling. When Perkins is standing, only 20cm of space exists between his the top of his head and the ceiling of the set. (Edmond, R )
As the interrogation continues for the next few minutes, there is a stillness in the character of the inspector which is juxtaposed against the high-strung fidgety nature of K.
The camera moves downward while tilting up which re-frames the characters in a dramatic, almost theatrical way, as though we are a sitting audience looking up at a stage.
K then enters Miss Burstner’s room, a wide angle shot allows the shadowy figures to recede into the background as the finally galant K comes to the fore.
An ‘up-light’ style lamp is carefully positioned in the room to bounce light from the low ceiling and illuminate the three office clerks.
The officers and the clerks surround K, the tight arrangement of the characters re-enforce a feeling of dread and closing-in.
The next shot has a dream-like quality, a departure from reality.
K’s point of view is shown, we know this as the characters are looking into camera, but they appear to be looking downwards. Clearly K’s stature is on par with the three men, the previous shots revealed this fact. So this shot does not make physical sense. The audience is left feeling surreal and uncomfortably threatened in this black comic moment. Christopher Kenworthy calls this the ‘exaggerated height’ technique (Kenworthy, C 2011)
In summary, the intentional and measured lighting and cinematography techniques used in these opening nine minutes contribute to create a foreboding anticipation of the nightmare to come. The stage is set for the telling of Kafka’s story and for what Welles himself considered ‘the best film I ever made’. (Wheldon, H 1962)
Prunes, M 2002, Yale Film Analysis, Editing, accessed 16 September 2012, <http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/editing.htm
Van Sijll, J 2001, ‘Cinematic Storytelling, The 100 most powerful film conventions every filmmaker must know, MWP, California.
Kenworthy, C 2011, ‘Master Shots, Vol 2, MWP, California.
Wheldon, H 1962, Orson Welles on ‘The Trial’, accessed 12 September 2012, <http://www.wellesnet.com/trial%20bbc%20interview.htm>
Edmond, R (video), Interview with cinematographer Edmond Richard (French language, German subtitles), accessed 14 September 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSxfK3iMNgg>