Tag Archives: Franz Kafka

[January 5, 1963] The Trial on Trial

by Victoria Lucas

Have you been following the talk about Orson Welles’s latest movie, one he personally wrote and edited?  While not precisely science fiction, it does overlap thematically, enough so that I’m certain you’ll enjoy a summary.

I was fortunate enough to catch the interview with him by Huw Wheldon on the BBC, or “The Beeb” as people across the Pond say.  First off, Welles talks about changes he made from the novel by Franz Kafka.  He says the main character (Josef K.) “doesn’t really deteriorate, certainly doesn’t surrender at the end” like the character in the novel.  That’s true, more or less, but listen carefully to Anthony Perkins playing K. at the very end and ask yourself why he doesn’t throw what he is reaching for.

I know, I know, what am I doing writing a review for a movie that hasn’t been released in the States yet.  Well, it was released in Paris, and quite a lot of people had something to do with the production and showing.  I hate to tell you this, but a copy somehow found its way into the hands of a friend of mine.  I can’t tell you any names, and I know no more than the name of my friend.  The copy is a bit, all right, under par, not like seeing it in a movie house, but it’s exciting to see the film many months before I possibly could have otherwise.  The earliest premiere in the US is in NYC, and I stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making that or any showing not in Tucson or Phoenix.  I would prefer to watch a non-bootleg copy and probably will sooner or later, but beggars can’t be choosers.

When the beginning title hits the screen, the recently discovered (1958) and orchestrated “Adagio in G Minor” by Tomas Albinoni begins a beat of what I can’t help but think of as a dirge before we see the opening parable, done in something called “pinscreen” graphics.  The title, by the way, is most remarkable for the fact that there is no trial in “The Trial.”

Of course we must keep in mind that a German word for “trial,” the title of the film and the Franz Kafka book that “inspired” it (according to Welles), is Der Prozess.  Also spelled “Process,” this word in German means “process, trial, litigation, lawsuit, court case.”  There are other words for “judgment, tribunal, trial”: “das Gericht,” which at least has the word “right” in it; and “die Verhandlung,” meaning “negotiation, hearing, trial.” 

It turns out there are numerous words that might apply to what we in the US would call a “trial” by judge and/or jury or any litigation: there are also “die Gerichtsverhandlung,” “die Instanz” (which also means “authority, court.”  Why did Kafka choose “der Prozess,” and why are some of the words feminine rather than masculine (like Prozess) or even neutral?  These are fine points of German as a language that I cannot reach from my one college semester of German.  It just appears to me that German has as many words for legal proceedings as the Eskimos are said to have for snow.  However, in this case the word “process” in English is fitting, because we never see a trial, only one hearing, during which the protagonist, Josef K. (with only an initial and not a full name, as if the author was protecting a real person) speaks and brands himself as a troublemaker.  (All legal proceedings in this alternate system of law are supposed to be secret.)

What we see in this film is a process indeed, a destructive process during which an innocent is exposed to corruption and chaos he never dreamed existed.  The book makes it much clearer that the system that crushes Josef K. is not related to the uniformed police and visible court system.  In fact, near the end, as K. is being frog-marched to a place of execution, he aids his captors in avoiding a policeman to whom he might have complained to prevent what was, after all, an abduction.  This network is underground, with courtrooms and file rooms in attics throughout the unnamed city.  Those enmeshed in it are “The Accused” as well as (illegal) Advocates and various officers and employees of the “court,” not to mention families who move their furniture and abandon their flats so that hearings can occur.  One character remarks (in both the book and film), “There are court offices in almost every attic” and “Everything belongs to the court.”

Welles changes this secrecy and underground nature to connect “the law” to the visible law courts by having K. exit a massive public building (actually in Rome or Zagreb), having entered it through a tenement at the back, in line with his view that “this is now 1962, and we’ve made the film in 1962.” During this century the classism and racism that were beneath public consciousness but engraved in the law, as well as officially tolerated or encouraged vigilantism, came into the open in a big way, like the difference between law practice in a makeshift courtroom and that in Grecian-style marble halls supported by uniformed officers of court and police. 

The author of the original book, Das Process was killed by an early 20th-century epidemic we now call tuberculosis, dying at age 40 in Austria.  (I am tempted to say, “died like a dog,” as K. characterizes his own murder or, in the logic of the book, execution.) Born Jewish in the kingdom of Bohemia, Kafka was a lawyer who worked for insurance companies.  This book would have been destroyed had his executor followed his instructions, but instead the order of the written chapters (mostly finished, apparently—I saw only one chapter labeled “unfinished”) were determined by his editor/executor and the book was originally published in 1925, a year after Kafka’s death.  Welles mentioned the Holocaust in the BBC interview as his reason for changing the ending, choosing “the only possible solution” (rather than the “Final” one) to negate the choices made “by a Jewish intellectual before the advent of Hitler.” So I feel justified in seeing much that relates to racism, not to mention sexism and classism.  Kafka was reportedly a socialist with some tendencies toward anarchism. 

According to Welles, the movie was filmed partly in Zabreb, Yugoslavia (exteriors), with most interiors in Paris (the Gare d’Orsay and a Paris studio), and some exteriors in Rome.  Welles would have filmed in Czechoslovakia, but Kafka’s work is banned there.  The last scene was shot in Yugoslavia, and so were the scenes with 1,500 desks, typewriters, and workers in a huge room for which they could locate no place but the Zabreb “industrial fair grounds” (scenes at K’s workplace, which do not correspond with the descriptions in the book). 

The partly abandoned Gare d’Orsay, in contrast to the other locations, was a huge seminal find for Welles, one that appeared to him at the end of a long day in which he learned that sets in Zagreb could not be finished in time to make his schedule or possibly even the film, if he could not find another location quickly.  Originally the Palais d’Orsay, subsequently a railroad station with platforms that became too short for long-distance use, the station was mostly abandoned, but the building included a 370-room hotel.  Welles quickly changed his plans from sets that dissolved and disappeared to one that was “full of the hopelessness of the struggle against bureaucracy” because “waiting for a paper to be filled is like waiting for a train.”

The gossip is that producer Andrew Salkind agreed to underwrite Welles’s project only if he could find a book to base it on that was in the public domain.  They both thought this work by Kafka was such a book, but discovered that they were wrong and had to pay for the use of the story, reducing the budget for the film.  Several people are credited with the writing, with Welles himself reading the titles at the end, but he says he wrote as well as directed and acted in it.  Rumor also says he wanted Jackie Gleason (yes, “Honeymooners”) to play the role he played, that of a lawyer Kafka named Dr. Huld (German for “grace” or “favor”) but that Welles christened “Hastler” (hassler? what the lawyer should do to the courts but not to the clients?).

There are some problems with Welles’s editing, the main one in my view concerning a scene with a wall of computers at the bank where K. is a middle-rank executive.  As it is, the scene is quite pointless and appears to exist only to show how up-to-date the film is compared to the 1925 novel.  However, it was originally a 10-minute scene in which Katina Paxinou (a face on the cutting-room floor) uses the computers to foretell K’s future (wrongly…OK, mostly wrongly).  It was “cut on the eve of the Paris premiere,” according to my notes on the BBC interview—in other words done in haste and, as in the proverb, made waste, but Welles clearly felt there was something wrong with the scene and saved us from most of it. 

Nevertheless, on the whole Welles felt good about “The Trial.” In the BBC interview he summed it thusly, “So say what you like, but ‘The Trial’ is the best film I have ever made.” I’m not sure I agree, but it’s definitely worth watching, even taking the time to compare it with the book.  (But beware of any resulting depression.)

[P.S. If you registered for WorldCon this year, please consider nominating Galactic Journey for the “Best Fanzine” Hugo.  Check your mail for instructions…]

[June 13, 1962] THE SINCEREST FORM? (the July 1962 Amazing)

by John Boston

The July Amazing starts off ambiguously, with Stonehenge on the cover—often a bad sign, you could find yourself in Atlantis if you’re not careful.  But it illustrates A Trace of Memory, a new serial by the reasonably hardheaded Keith Laumer, so we may be spared any deep wooliness.  I’ll defer reading and comment until it’s complete.

So what else is there?  Excepting the “Classic Reprint,” this is the Literary Pastiche issue of Amazing.  The first of three short stories is The Blonde from Barsoom by Robert F. Young, featuring an aspiring fantasy writer whose work is virtually plagiarized from Edgar Rice Burroughs, as we are shown entirely too clearly.  It is vivid, because he has a knack for projecting himself into Burroughs’s world, and it soon enough occurs to him that maybe he could project himself into a more pleasant and less strenuous world.  Two stars for this slick but annoying trifle.

Then there is Richard Banks’s The Last Class, a Zola pastiche, which we know because it is subtitled (With Apologies to Emile Zola), and the blurb-writer helpfully adds that Zola wrote a similar story of the same title set just after the Franco-Prussian War.  This version is set in a regimented future world where people seem to live underground and get around via matter transmitter, and features a schoolteacher who tells her students about the Twentieth Century, when people were free, and gets caught at it.  It’s pretty well done, except that the teacher is referred to throughout as Miss Hippiness because she has big hips.  Would anyone refer to a sympathetic male central character as Mr. Beergutty or Mr. Hairybackish?  It’s an annoying distraction from an otherwise reasonably commendable story, holding it at three stars. 

This Banks—not to be confused with the more established and prolific Raymond E. Banks—has published one prior story in F&SF and one that sounds pretty SFnal (Roboticide Squad) in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

In between these two is William W. Stuart’s A Prison Make, in which a guy wakes up in a disgusting institutional setting which proves to be a jail, charged with something that he doesn’t remember—but in this world, law enforcement can rummage around in your mind, and they can damage your memory doing it.  He’s got a lawyer—a robot on wheels in very poor repair who doesn’t hold out much hope.  The story is about his adjustment to his absurd and outrageous situation, and if it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s a downmarket SF rendition of Kafka’s The Trial.  As with the other stories, you don’t have to figure it out on your own, since the blurb-writer refers to it as a “Kafkaesque tale.” Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, or at least the most interesting.  This one too is well done if a little heavyhanded in places, but without any stupid missteps like Mr. Banks’s character-naming gaffe.  Four stars.

So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have SF writers emulating great mainstream writers of the past.  Who’s next?  I hear James Joyce is kind of interesting.  Just—please—no more Hemingway.  (See Hemingway in Space by Kingsley Amis from last year’s Judith Merril “best of the year” anthology.)

Interestingly, there is no editorial comment other than in the blurbs on the fact that three of the five fiction items here are overtly derived from the work of other authors.

The “Classic Reprint” this month, G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s The Chamber of Life from the October 1929 Amazing, is actually pretty good.  Once more we have the nearly omnipresent plot device of this old SF: ordinary guy is invited by scientific genius to check out his invention, and trouble follows.  But Wertenbaker could write: he had a plain and understated style which compares well to the clumsier and more stilted diction of some of his contemporaries, and he avoids the tiresome digressions of the recent Buck Rogers epic.  Here the invention is the ultimate motion picture: all senses are engaged and the viewer is precipitated into an encompassing hallucinatory world, in this case, a regimented utopian society of the future.  This guy was ahead of his time; too bad he hung it up in 1931, after only half a dozen stories.  Four stars.

Ben Bova contributes another science article (the second of four, we are told), The Three Requirements of Life in the Solar System, which is better organized and more to the point than the one in the previous issue.  The three requirements are a “building block atom” for construction of large molecules, a solvent medium in which large molecules can be built, and an energy exchange reaction.  On Earth, these are of course carbon, water, and hydrogen-oxygen respectively.  Bova then runs down the possibilities for life on each of the planets (for Mars, “almost certainly”; for Venus, “quite possibly”; Jupiter “might”; and the rest, “probably not” or worse).  That “almost certainly” is a surprise; but Bova asserts, “Even the most conservative astronomers will now grudgingly admit that some form of plant life no doubt exists in the greenish areas of the Red Planet.” That’s certainly news to me.  Three stars.

Bova’s articles, by the way, are illustrated by Virgil Finlay (unlike Frank Tinsley’s, which had at most diagrams or badly printed photos)—an interesting conjunction.  Finlay illustrates this month’s sober rendition with something like a fanged lobster with tentacles (“Artist’s rendition of author’s conception of Jovian sea-creature”), and last month he presented a pageant of DNA, the animal kingdom from trilobite to H. Sapiens overlaid with the double helix, its meticulous detail badly betrayed by Amazing’s mediocre printing.


One other item of interest appears in Or So You Say, the letter column: one Julian Reid of Canada takes Mark Clifton to task at great length for the misanthropy of his recent stories in Amazing, and compares them knowledgeably and unfavorably with Clifton’s earlier work.  Clifton replies at almost the same length, asserting variously that he was just kidding, he venerates humanity and that’s why he bothers to needle it, and his mail is running fifty to one favorably about those stories. 


And, looming inescapably, in inexorable pursuit . . . B_______ B_________.

(Don’t miss your chance to see the Traveler LIVE via visi-phone, June 17 at 11 AM!  A virtual panel, with Q&A, show and tell, and prizes!)