On Friday, we featured Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” adapted in 1963 through the work-intensive but aesthetically stunning means of “pinscreen animation” by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker. But they hadn’t labored over it in total obscurity; the year before, no less solid a pillar of American film than Orson Welles had commissioned their work for use in his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, another work of literature deeply concerned with the absurd. Critical opinion varies about the film, which some consider Welles’ best work, others consider his worst, and others still consider a mixture of the two.
It certainly remains one of his least-seen works, and yet it contains the most mainstream thing Alexeieff and Parker ever did. Very few deny the effectiveness of the film’s prologue, which combines images straight from the husband-and-wife team’s pinscreen with Welles’ unmistakable voice reading “Before the Law,” a parable from Kafka’s novel. Alexeieff and Parker’s images are still, rather than animated, which must have cut way down on the production time.
“Before the law, there stands a guard,” Welles intones. “A man comes from the country, begging admittance to the law. But the guard cannot admit him. May he hope to enter at a later time? That is possible, said the guard. The man tries to peer through the entrance. He’d been taught that the law was to be accessible to every man. ‘Do not attempt to enter without my permission,’ says the guard. I am very powerful. Yet I am the least of all the guards. From hall to hall, door after door, each guard is more powerful than the last. By the guard’s permission, the man sits by the side of the door, and there he waits.” These words establish the basis for not just The Trial, but seemingly Kafka’s own legal sensibility, and indeed worldview. The man waits for years, staring at the guard and lavishing him with bribes. He grows old and enfeebled. Finally, he asks why, despite the fact that “every man strives to attain the law,” nobody else but him has ever come to attempt passage through its doors. “Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admittance,” the guard replies. “This door was intended only for you! And now, I’m going to close it.” Welles then comments that “the logic of this story is the logic of a dream… a nightmare.” One understands why the director, who endured so many futile and absurd experiences in the entertainment industry, would feel drawn to such a fable. As for how he chose such appropriate imagery for it — well, maybe just good luck.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.