Kafka’s Parable “Before the Law” Narrated by Orson Welles & Illustrated with Pinscreen Art

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Watch Franz Kaf­ka, the Won­der­ful Ani­mat­ed Film by Piotr Dumala

Kafka’s Night­mare Tale, ‘A Coun­try Doc­tor,’ Told in Award-Win­ning Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion

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.

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