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THE TRIAL (1963)

PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Meaning of life, existentialism

CHARACTERS: Josef K (Anthony Perkins), Miss Burstner (dancer who lives in same apartment complex with Josef), Mrs. Grubach (Josef’s landlady), Uncle Max, Hastler (Orson Welles, Advocate), Leni (advocate’s assistant), Bloch (another client of Advocate Hastler), Titorelli (painter)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ORSON WELLES: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), Macbeth (1948)

SYNOPSIS: The film, based on Franz Kafka’s posthumously published novel The Trial (1924) is about a man, Josef K, who is arrested and put on trial, but never explained why. Kafka was an attorney, and the story reflects his experience with the criminal justice system in his home city of Prague (now in the Czech Republic). The film opens with an allegory from the novel, which encapsulates the novel’s central point: a man goes to a city containing the “law”, but a guard at the gate warns him not to enter. The man obeys, but spends his entire life persuading the guard to let him in. Just before the man dies, the guard says that this door was made just for him, but now he must close it. The story itself begins with Josef awakened at 6:15 AM by two inspectors who inform him that he’s arrested and suspiciously scrutinizes all of his words. Although under arrest, he is not taken into custody and the inspectors interrogate him intermittently during his daily routine. As he goes through his normal activities, everyone he talks to speaks to him as though he is guilty of something, just as the inspectors do, and he continually attempts to defend himself. At the end of the film, two inspectors throw Josef into a pit, toss in dynamite, and Josef dies in the explosion. Filmed first in Yugoslavia, and later in Paris when finances dried up, many of the sets were constructed in a large and empty Paris railway station. The film and Anthony Perkins’s performance were ridiculed when the movie was first released in 1963. Orson Welles is reported to have said, “Say what you will, but 'The Trial' is the finest film I have ever made.” In 2000, the original negative of the film was discovered and it was again theatrically released. Subsequent responses to both the film and Perkins have been more favorable.


1. One commentator on Kafka’s novel wrote the following: “The book, unfinished though it is, has been interpreted variously and at length as a metaphysical statement about human fate, a dissertation on original sin, an exposure of the corruption of modern capitalism, an anatomy of neurasthenia, an illustration of the absurdity of human existence. The points of view from which its critics have approached it are many and diverse; the aspects the critics have scrutinized run the gamut from epistemological method and semiotics to Kafka's use of gesture and the role of his female characters. ” Does any of these best capture the point of the film?

2. Some people see The Trial as an exploration of the relationship between humans and God, particularly as an allegory for original sin. How is that?

3. The term “Kafkaesque” refers to the absurd and nightmarish scenarios depicted in The Trial and his other writings. What percentage of our normal lives is Kafkaesque, and in which situations does this occur most often?

4. The key question raised by the allegory at the beginning of the movie is whether the man came to the door of his own free will and voluntarily put himself in that dilemma. To the extent that this allegory represents the message of the film as a whole, can we as a matter of free choice avoid the entire problem that Josef encountered?

5. Josef states the following: “It’s never any use apologizing, its even worse when you haven’t done anything wrong and you still feel guilty. I can remember my father looking at me straight in the eye, come on boy, he’d say, exactly what have you been up to. And even when I haven’t been up to anything at all I’d still feel guilty.” Later he says “Why am I always in the wrong without knowing what for or what it’s all about?” What kinds of things might we feel guilty about even though we might not think we’ve done anything wrong?

6. Romantic desires is one of the things that Josef is accused of early on in the film. Why is that an issue of guilt for him (or for anyone)?

7. As Josef’s case develops, he becomes more successful in romancing different women. Advocate Hastler states, “accused men are attractive,” and he notes that his assistant Leni sleeps with them because of this. Is there any specific kind of guilt that would make a person more romantically appealing?

8. All of the scenes in the film have cold and impersonal settings – empty streets, bland architecture, hundreds of typists crowded into a room, rusty industrial warehouses. How does this imagery connect with the storyline?

9. Many people have complained that their experience with the criminal justice system was Kafkaesque. What kinds of experiences with the police and courts might best match Josef’s experience?

10. Josef does not respond to the interrogations sheepishly. Instead, he defends himself, attacks his accusers, is continually sarcastic towards them, kicks down locked doors, and occasionally walks out on proceedings. Thus, he is probably more aggressive in his response than a normal person might be. Nevertheless, he is on trial – perhaps willingly. Since Josef can’t free himself from the interrogations, what should normal people do to escape similar entrapment?

11. In one scene the inspectors who first interrogated Josef are being punished for corruption. Feeling compassion for them, Josef says that it’s not their fault, but that of those higher up in the system. Is Josef correct, or is this assessment part of Josef’s problem?

12. Josef visits his Advocate (i.e., defense attorney), and during a discussion about his case, he is lured out by Leni, the advocate’s nurse and the two have a romantic episode. Thus, at this moment, his desire to be free from guilt is outweighed by his desire for romance. Is this just a guy thing, or part of Josef’s larger problem?

13. Josef and Leni see a painting of a Magistrate (a lower-level judge). Leni states, “I know him. He’s not a big man like that. He’s little, almost a dwarf. But look at the way he had himself painted. He’s vain, of course, like everybody else here.” Josef believes that the judges, like this one, are the main source of his troubles. Does it help to resolve his dilemma by noting that the judges are vain or placing blame on them in some other way?

14. Leni offers Josef this advice “You’re too stubborn and too much of a trouble maker, that’s what I hear. ... Just take my warning to heart and try to be a little more cooperative.... The first chance you get you ought to make your confession. Till you do that there isn’t a hope of getting out of their clutches. Not a hope.” Is this a good solution to his problem?

15. There are many people besides Josef trapped in the legal system, such as Bloch. Most are old, have been in the system for years, and became submissive as time went by. Josef, who is new to the system, speaks to them in a harsh, accusatory tone, just as the unaccused speak to Josef himself. The point is that the system wears us down over time. Explain how this works in both a religious and nonreligious context.

16. One of the more disturbing scenes in the film is when Bloch, fearful that he might get on the wrong side of Advocate Hastler, crawls on Hastler’s bed and kisses his hand. Josef comments that Bloch has been reduced to being Hastler’s dog, which Josef wants to avoid. Hastler is only a middleman between Bloch and the chief judge. What is the religious symbolism behind Bloch’s relationship with Hastler?

17. Josef tells Advocate Hastler that he’s dispensing with his services. Hastler responds, “To be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free.” In what situations might Hastler be right?

18. Titorelli explains Josef’s legal options. Definite acquittal is the best, but Titorelli has never heard of such a case. Ostensible acquittal takes place in lower courts, but Josef’s file would continue to circulate in higher courts, and he may be arrested again. Indefinite deferment means his record would be destroyed, but the charges are still pending. What’s the religious significance of these options?

19. When Josef decides to represent himself, advocate Hastler states, “By attempting to defy the court by such an obviously mad gesture you hope to plead insanity? You’ve laid some foundation for that claim by appearing to believe yourself the victim of some kind of conspiracy. ... You think you can persuade the court that you are not responsible by reason of lunacy?” In the context of the story, is it really insane for us to attempt to defend ourselves without the usual mechanisms within the system (such as an Advocate or the church)?

20. The explosion at the end of the film was introduced by Welles, not by Kafka who didn’t finish the novel. Does this ending fit with the thrust of the story, or might there have been a better ending?


This was a good movie for it’s time and audience but it made me really frustrated because of the trapped feeling it gives you as you watch it. In the movie Josef is put in a most absurd position and is never once coerced or forced to act in any given way. He openly states how crazy he thinks the entire situation is yet willingly participates although it is never made clear that he has to. I felt like this movie was trying to show us that even though this world can be hectic and even though some things in life will never make sense; it is all an elaborate production that requires our participation to go on. Josef made the decision to get out of bed when the investigators burst in and he always walked into the court and judicial area by himself, unescorted. At first it seems that he only carries on because of curiosity but in the end is trapped in the insane legal system. But the most important point is that he is the one that puts himself in all of these situations. If he had chosen not to cooperate and stayed in bed or simply never paid any attention to any of the investigator warnings it is possible that nothing would have ever happened to him. In real life we have ways of getting out of this cycle. We can commit suicide if it seems that we are in too deep and there is no escape. We can refuse to follow society’s laws and norms, to branch out on our own to create new systems and morals. In the end of the movie Josef is offered the chance to take his own life, this being his only means of escape from this horrible system, instead he refuses forcing the investigators to kill him instead. I think this was an attempt to show Josef had decided to stand up to the system and go with option two mentioned earlier but he clearly had no idea how to do since he was disillusioned from his previous way of life. -- Jazzman

I liked the movie, I just thought most of it was absurd. The whole basis of the plot, that a man has been put on trial and found guilty of a crime he is unaware of, is simply absurd. While this does certainly reflect notions about the court system, I don’t see it happening in this way. Numerous people are convicted and thrown in jail for crimes they “didn’t commit” but they are made aware of the crime, and why they are being convicted. But this goes back to a point I made in my “Minority Report” questions: how many innocent people will we allow to be locked up, as long as a guilty man doesn’t go free? It appears in the movie that that number is a lot. Joseph K wanders through several scenes noticing hundreds of people meeting the same fate. It is possible to take the idea in a religious context. This I find more interesting. As a Christian, it could be taken like a relationship with God. I might one day, die, and go to a place known as Hell. Why? Well, if not being a Christian is the reason; will I be made aware of that? What if I am a “Christian,” just not the “right kind” or didn’t do it in “exactly” the right way? What if I worshipped the “wrong” God? Will I be given answers to these questions? If not, then certainly this movie is a decent parallel to that idea. Even in the Christian sense, I go to Heaven, and God reveals to me all the actions I’ve performed in my life. He then proceeds to nit pick, sort of slapping me on the wrist, for things I didn’t even know where wrong. This movie certainly could be taken to draw on that conclusion. For that, I was impressed. But, the deciding factor on why I disliked it had to be the ending. Blowing K up with dynamite was simply a little weird, and stupid, in my opinion. I honestly feel like it destroyed the movies perspective and content. But I guess, since it seemed to feed on the whole “absurdity” issue, it wasn’t too out of place. -- The Apostate

The Trial was a silly movie. It was filmed in 1963 and directed by Orson Welles and based on The Trial by Franz Kafka. Basically this movie was about a guy that woke up and found himself being arrested in his bedroom with no explanation or reasoning. The detectives did not take the man into custody, but rather they allowed him to continue his daily routine and go to work. The entire movie is spent with this guy trying to figure out what he is charged with and to whom he needs to talk to about getting things cleared up. In the beginning of the movie “law” is symbolized by a guarded gate that the arrested man is not allowed to enter. He waits his entire life to be let in, and just before he dies the guard tells him that the gate was made only for him but the guard was never allowed to open it. This brief allegory before the movie is a very good short synopsis of the film itself. The film discusses the meaning of life and apathy towards the truth. I find the thought of admitting to a crime that I did not commit to be absolutely revolting, however the charged crime and proposed punishment or claiming guilt or innocence would be the ultimate indicator of whether or not I would allow myself to falsely claim admitting a crime. In this film people seem to spend their lives trying to prove innocence or gain some sort of acquittal for a charge that they are unaware of committing or even unaware of the action being a crime. This movie reinforces the belief that one should not place any amount of trust in the government. All they do is inaccurately present bits and pieces of information while withholding the vast majority. I would rate this movie a five out of ten because I enjoy things that encourage distrusting the government and I enjoy things that question the futility of existence. -- Scuba-nator

The Trial was one of the most confusing films I have ever seen. The audience is thrust into the story at the very beginning of the movie with no explanation of what is going on. This technique, although confusing, is an effective method of getting the viewer to understand the confusion Josef K is feeling. The whole movie seems to be a judgment of the judicial system. First of all, it questions the general population’s compliance with anyone claiming to be connected to law enforcement. We assume that whatever the policeman, judge, or detective does is the correct course of action. It’s this kind of blind obedience to authority that gets Josef K in so much trouble. Josef had several opportunities to not follow instructions given by the detectives, however he chose to follow their orders instead, inadvertently sealing his fate. This overconfidence in law enforcement can be translated into everyday life. Many people are unaware of their legal rights in certain situations, such as when it is legal to search your property, and this ignorance gets them into almost as much trouble as Josef. This movie implies that it is our duty to know the law and to not be tricked by those claiming to be representatives of the law. We might not end up blown to bits at the bottom of a pit, but the ramifications of being ignorant of the law could be serious enough to ruin your life. — D.O.

Despite receiving poor reviews all around, I found The Trial intriguing, frustrating, funny, entertaining, and incredibly weird all at the same time. To be fair, I have not read Kafka’s 1913 novel of the same name upon which the film is based so the criticism of it being a laborious retelling is lost on me. The criticisms of some of the dialogue and acting are not lost on me though, and they can both be a bit distracting. Still, wondering just what the hell is going on should be enough to keep anyone watching … which is perhaps the reason for so many bad reviews: the reviewers already know what’s going on as most report having read the book prior. As for philosophical points raised, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s not that there aren’t any or that there are too many, it’s just I’m still so damn confused as to exactly what they were. Normally, this would be a big strike against a film for me, but not with The Trial. Despite having to laboriously pick through a confusing story, symbolism and dialogue I honestly enjoy wondering about just what the hell is going on. I almost don’t want to figure it out. But I have gleamed a few notions of what Kafka (and or Welles, as I’m not sure what points or parts of the film were true to the book) was trying to say: a parable about the existential notion of taking responsibility for one’s life (described by the opening animated sequence) and something about how the legal system of modern society is not much better than the one in The Trial. All in all, I don’t really know what’s going on in The Trial, but that’s just fine by me. — J.B.

The Trial was among my favorite movies we watched during the semester. The Trial does an excellent job of showing how frustrating and absurd the legal process can be. It is probably not for the casual viewer as this movie requires a bit of thinking to understand the message. Brazil is an excellent movie with a similar theme that may be a little easier for most people to get. The Trial focuses on Josef K. a man who is awoken out of bed and accused of a crime but never told what it is. At times The Trial is disorienting with strange dialogue and actions. I believe this is done to show how disorienting and absurd the legal system is. As someone said in class, why does a person have to pay thousands of dollars just to have a lawyer say what the accused could have easily said? Why can’t a person just talk to a judge, or the victims, and work something out? The movie is also a metaphor for the absurdity of life. The absurdity of the movie never ends until the death of the main character. The whole movie may be seen as the journey of a person through life: they awaken; are accused, but never sure what it is they are accused of; fight their entire life against the system; then die. — N.T.

The Trial, directed by Orson Welles, can be described in one word: trippy. It starts off with two men who arrive at Josef’s apartment. He is charged with crimes that are not specified in the movie and the men have no allegiance to an organization whatsoever. The rest of the movie is a mere blur to me. It was hard to make sense of what was going on. Just watching the film myself, made me feel as if I were going insane. I felt some connection with Josef throughout the film. I felt his frustration and anxiety about his situation. The end is tragic in a sense but was expected by the character himself. Overall, I really did not like this movie; it felt horribly disjointed and disorienting. Maybe, if I were to watch this film again, I could maybe make some sense out of it, but if I did I would feel the insanity that Josef felt throughout the film. — J.M.

The Trial: The trial was a little bit more entertaining than the others. It had me a little confused for a while about exactly what the main character had done until I realized that he had not really done anything. Throughout the whole movie the harassing investigators are constantly nagging him and calling him and treating him like a criminal but they are in fact just feeding off of his guilty conscience. Until you figure out what is going on the movie seems very random or strange. For instance the part where the investigators are talking to him and one of the cops uses a strange word that doesn’t make any sense, the main character calls him out on it but later it gets made to seem like he himself started using it. The way the cops twisted things around on the main character was often comical at times. (To me at least.) I had never really thought about the guilt I have often felt over situations that were in no way connected to me. It made me realize just how many times I have and how often I do feel that way. I think a lot of it has to do with the topic of original sin. We are all raised to feel guilty about failing god. We have sinned before we arrived upon this earth and the purpose of our lives is to get back into god’s good graces. We are guilty until proven innocent in the court of society. — J.R.

At first glance, The Trial doesn’t appear all that spectacular, but by the end of the movie, and after reflecting on it, it may be one of the better movies I have seen in a long time. Its central issue is the absurdity of the modern legal systems of the West. I think, however, it is a broader statement of the absurdity of modern bureaucracy in general. I think, it is also intended to show the absurdity of religion. Josef K is a very unassuming, hardworking citizen who becomes assaulted suddenly by his local justice system. Investigators interrogate him night and day in his everyday life, and they arrest him without telling him what he is being charged with. He is simply guilty. From this, an indictment of Christianity may be seen. For in the eyes of the church we are all guilty from the moment we are born, and the only way we can be forgiven is to accept the church and her clergy. This is very strongly suggested by the seen in which the man kisses the hand of his advocate, played by Orson Welles. The suggestion would be, I think, that these advocates--these representatives of the church and of God, do nothing, really, yet we have to show fealty to them because we have no other choice. So, the message seems to be, in true existentialist fashion, that we should let go of our trust and belief in these defunct systems (religion, modern legal and bureaucratic systems), for they keep us in a state of guilt and oppression. We should break free of these systems and become the free existentialist hero. — J.R.

The movie “The Trail” is a 1986 movie based around Franz Kafka’s posthumously published novel The Trial (1924). The film revolves around a man, Josef K, who is arrested and put on trial, but never, explained why. Kafka was an attorney, and the story reflects his experience with the criminal justice system in his home city of Prague (now in the Czech Republic). One commentator on Kafka’s novel wrote the following: “The book, unfinished though it is, has been interpreted variously and at length as a metaphysical statement about human fate, a dissertation on original sin, an exposure of the corruption of modern capitalism, an anatomy of neurasthenia, an illustration of the absurdity of human existence. The points of view from which its critics have approached it are many and diverse; the aspects the critics have scrutinized run the gamut from epistemological method and semiotics to Kafka's use of gesture and the role of his female characters.” However, many people viewed the movie in more religious terms and ask some people see The Trial as an exploration of the relationship between humans and God, particularly as an allegory for original sin. How is that? We see this in how Josef is charged with a crime he doesn’t know he has committed, and nobody will tell him what it is. What I found unfitting is at the end where Josef is killed in an explosion, which could possibly die to the unfinished work left behind by the author due to his death. — A.V.
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