Ghosts July 20, 2021
On The Trial and The Immortal Story
rson Welles once called The Trial — his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel — the best movie he ever made. You can sense that total confidence in
the finished product. The Trial is so seamlessly nightmarish, lopsidedly funny, that you aren’t thinking about the careful deliberation it takes to eventually consider a film either of those tricky-to-convey things. It’s a movie that feels fully formed from the outset.
Kafka’s story is famous enough by now to be familiar even to those who haven’t read the original in full. In The Trial, the narrator, a bank cashier named Josef K., wakes up the morning of his 30th birthday to find himself under arrest. The agents who put him in handcuffs are evasive both about whom they work for and what it is K. is being accused of. (K, notoriously, will never be charged with
anything in particular in The Trial.) The Trial in many ways isn’t that much of an anomaly in Welles’ body of work. It naturally carries on his predilections for visual uncanniness, the slipperiness of identity and everyday stability in the stories he prefers to tell. (One hears of Welles adapting Kafka before watching The Trial and, familiar with the director’s most famous works, might think of the two as complementary to one another — a smart pairing that should have wed on screen sooner.)
But The Trial was, at that point, the first of Welles’ movies to be so intentionally otherworldly — pointedly unexplicit. His American movies, especially 1947’s infamously slashed-up The Lady from Shanghai, are bewildering usually not because of a similarly built-in circuitousness but, in large part, because of editing-room interference by his studio. Shot for little money, The Trial marked the beginning of a European sojourn that would last the rest of Welles’ career. It was also one of very few times post-Citizen Kane (1941) that he was able to get his untampered-with vision up on screen.
Anthony Perkins, fresh off Psycho (1960), plays K. with his trademark squirreliness. (The character’s unease in his identity gets some additional dimension because of the sheer fact of Perkins’ real-life bisexuality, which had been much speculated over but never explicated on for years.) The movie thrusts K. into a labyrinth of uneasy, oftentimes bizarre, murkily-dialogued run-ins with characters played by Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Elsa Martinelli, Romy Schneider, Akim Temiroff, and Welles himself (he plays a profligate lawyer who agrees to hear K. out on his plight) after his movie-opening arrest. K. spends the film being continuously surveilled by the agents of a never-totally-clarified body. When he finally makes his case in court, he’s laughed at, like everyone knows something he doesn’t.
Although The Trial is structured and populated with characters in a way that suggests that this narrative would get clearer, with K. acquiring more knowledge of his case the more he explores, the effect is in fact opposite. Everything only grows murkier and everyone more untrustworthy. (The banal evils of bureaucracy get quite a bit more blatant, though.) Every room K. steps into is either cavernously big and swallowing or tight and sweaty. When he isn’t made to feel small, he’s squished in other ways. The Trial’s visuals make it at once feel impersonal — alien; out of place and time — and intimate, since they vividly expatiate on K.’s sudden distrust of and estrangement from a familiar environment.
For all his smallness, though, K. isn’t necessarily a hapless victim about whom we know little besides his unequivocal innocence. Of course the novel and film’s conceit finds a great deal of its nightmarishness in what it literally is about — a realization of the fear of prosecution over something over which you have no control. Kafka’s novel was prescient in how it could apply to such destructive phenomena as the Holocaust and the blacklist; both, obviously, proved that the persecutorial horror at the core of the work wasn’t that far a stretch — purely “Kafkaesque.” (Welles’ adaptation swaps Kafka’s inceptive prescience for discerning relevance.) But K. is also defined as an upwardly mobile executive type willing to serve an oppressive system and potentially even advance in it despite ostensibly having guilt about his place within it. Welles had often been frustrated before completing his adaptation of the frequent misremembrance that K. was a thorough victim, free of critique and totally jinxed. His adaptation reiterates the character’s moral failings, his implication in his own tragedy. K.’s prosecution might be seen as a manifestation of that guilt — a subconscious on overdrive. Welles trenchantly and evocatively pinpoints the bleakly funny irony of being annihilated by the very system you had once helped prop up. Many viewers, I figure, will finish the movie reevaluating how they too occupy the world.
Jeanne Moreau in 1968's The Immortal Story.
elles made only a few more movies after The Trial.
All produced in Europe, they continued what the filmmaker had started with The Trial — creation backed by more autonomy than he had ever had
(though at the cost of wider exposure) after years spent in Hollywood with creative ambitions consistently encumbered by studio wariness. He followed up The Trial with Chimes at Midnight (1965), a drama that reworked elements of Shakespeare (namely the playwright’s recurring John Falstaff character) and Holinshed’s Chronicles and unseated The Trial as Welles’ own then-personal-favorite work. Three years afterward, he’d say farewell, albeit unconsciously, to fiction with The Immortal Story (1968), an hour-long adaptation of a Karen Blixen short story produced for French television, meant to spark an anthology series that never flamed.
In the grand scheme of Welles’ protean career, The Immortal Story, also his first to be shot (gorgeously, by Willy Kurant) in color, is oftentimes delineated as a lesser work. But something minor from someone possessing Welles’ outsized artistic ambition and curiosity can almost be anticipated ahead of time to have a richness missing from a more insignificant filmmaker’s tentpole work. The Immortal Story, predictably, is expressive and layered — a moving, ghostly drama that finds a great deal of its resonance in how the distinctive regrets and despairs of a set of characters brought together by circumstance intermingle with and push against the strictures of the main plot.
In some senses, The Immortal Way feels like an echo of the bottom half of Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane. In it, Welles plays an exorbitantly wealthy merchant, Mr. Clay, who is living in Macao in the imposingly capacious mansion that once belonged to his ex-business partner, Ducrot. Clay is nearing the end of his life — Welles’ face is creased by painted-on wrinkles, his eyes rouged and raw-looking — and is now infatuated with his past. He’s consumed by which of life’s simple pleasures he has missed out on because of his power, mournful of the harms he has caused — albeit purely in relation to how they inform his current loneliness — to retain it. (Clay has no one in his life aside from his dutiful Roger Coggio-portrayed bookkeeper, Lavinsky, and his own reflection, which unforgettably stares back at him through the large mirror he keeps at the end of the dining-room table where he eats alone.) “He had only one passion — a craving to be left alone,” an early voiceover tells us of Clay. His only joy seems to come from Lavinsky recalling old triumphs — he reads aloud from old account books. Things take a turn, though, when Lavinsky deviates from this “storytelling” custom and decides to read from scripture.
Clay is immediately irritated. He hates prophecies, he tells Lavinsky; he thinks storytelling should be limited to things that have already happened. But then Clay is intrigued when the bookkeeper pivots to recounting an old parable about a rich man who pays a sailor 5 guinea to sleep with his wife. Clay suddenly becomes preoccupied with making this story a reality — it’s a new venue through which he can exercise his narcissism and scrape some of the rust off his long-dormant power — and so decides that he’s going to hire a woman and a sailor to play the parts as outlined in the story, with him obviously inhabiting the “rich man” part. (Nevermind that this tale was popular among fantasizing sailors rather than fellow capitalists.) Lavinsky, tasked with the bizarre casting, eventually finds willing players. The wife will be played by Virginie (Jeanne Moreau, beloved by Welles and featured prominently in The Trial and Chimes at Midnight), the still-bitter daughter of Ducrot, whom Clay presumably “destroyed” in his quest for power and of whom Clay doesn’t know the true identity. The sailor will be embodied by Paul (Norman Eshley), an actual sailor so gripped by loneliness when Lavinsky picks him up that he later admits that he has not spoken to anybody in more than a year.
The film functions exquisitely in one sense as an allegory for the collaborative creative process, and how lackluster it can be both when the humanity of the people inextricable from its functionality is undervalued — when the creator thinks more than anything about their ego as they produce. Is this, maybe unconsciously for Welles, a film-length exercise to remind himself how invaluable a thing collaboration is, and how important it is to pay attention to rather than steamroll an artistic co-conspirator’s humanity? What one will likely remember most from The Immortal Story, though, is its overwhelming sense of melancholy — desires for lives out of reach — fortified by characters whose individual sorrows feel so fully realized that we can detect lifetimes in them with an almost unnerving certainty.
One may naturally think often while watching the movie of Joan Didion’s endlessly repeated observation that everyone tells themselves stories in order to live. The Immortal Story considers how the tendency can only put salt on what we perceive as our shortcomings (in what ways have we ruined our own ability to mirror the characters we want to emulate?), how the almost-unconscious act is tethered to our self-conception. Even though The Immortal Story feels elegiac — like the work of a filmmaker at the very end of his life — Welles was only in his early 50s when he made it. But when wasn’t Welles looking farther ahead than where he sat, pushing his imagination to places not yet explored? The Immortal Story may not match in sheer scope the expansiveness of Welles’ bigger works. But it would be a disservice to deem it comparatively less than.
The Immortal Story only expands on his still-singular talent for finding new ways to challenge himself and his audience in a way that feels mutually beneficial rather than tipped more heavily toward one side. It’s a shame that, in real time, Welles’ artistic generosity was so often fucked with, taken for granted — like he had to be brought down a peg. There’s a feeling, watching his late-period movies, that he was only getting started. Every time I watch one of his films, I can’t help but think about what his career might have looked like had it not been so turbulent. What would we get in this alternate universe — and what wouldn’t we have from our present one?
The Trial: A
The Immortal Story: A