Orson Welles Narrates Animations of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Parables of the Human Condition

You’re held cap­tive in an enclosed space, only able faint­ly to per­ceive the out­side world. Or you’re kept out­side, unable to cross the thresh­old of a space you feel a des­per­ate need to enter. If both of these sce­nar­ios sound like dreams, they must do so because they tap into the anx­i­eties and sus­pi­cions in the depths of our shared sub­con­scious. As such, they’ve also proven reli­able mate­r­i­al for sto­ry­tellers since at least the fourth cen­tu­ry B.C., when Pla­to came up with his alle­go­ry of the cave. You know that sto­ry near­ly as sure­ly as you know the ancient Greek philoso­pher’s name: a group of human beings live, and have always lived, deep in a cave. Chained up to face a wall, they have only ever seen the images of shad­ow pup­pets thrown by fire­light onto the wall before them.

To these iso­lat­ed beings, “the truth would be lit­er­al­ly noth­ing but the shad­ows of the images.” So Orson Welles tells it in this 1973 short film by ani­ma­tor Dick Oden. In his time­less­ly res­o­nant voice that com­ple­ments the pro­duc­tion’s haunt­ing­ly retro aes­thet­ic, Wells then speaks of what would hap­pen if a cave-dweller were to be unshack­led.

“He would be much too daz­zled to see dis­tinct­ly those things whose shad­ows he had seen before,” but as he approach­es real­i­ty, “he has a clear­er vision.” Still, “will he not be per­plexed? Will he not think that the shad­ows which he for­mer­ly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?” And if brought out of the cave to expe­ri­ence real­i­ty in full, would he not pity his old cave­mates? “Would he not say, with Homer, bet­ter to be the poor ser­vant of a poor mas­ter and to endure any­thing rather than think as they do and live after their man­ner?”

Pla­to’s cave was­n’t the first para­ble of the human con­di­tion Welles nar­rat­ed. Just over a decade ear­li­er, he engaged pin­screen ani­ma­tor Alexan­dre Alex­eieff (he of Night on Bald Moun­tain and and “The Nose,” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) to illus­trate his read­ing of Franz Kafka’s sto­ry “Before the Law.” The law, in Kafka’s telling, is a build­ing, and before that build­ing stands a guard. “A man comes from the coun­try, beg­ging admit­tance to the law,” says Welles. “But the guard can­not admit him. May he hope to enter at a lat­er time? That is pos­si­ble, said the guard.” Yet some­how that time nev­er comes, and he spends the rest of his life await­ing admis­sion to the law. “Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admit­tance,” the guard admits to the man, not long before the man expires of old age. “This door was intend­ed only for you! And now, I’m going to close it.”

“Before the Law” describes a grim­ly absurd sit­u­a­tion, as does Welles’ The Tri­al, the film to which it serves as an intro­duc­tion. Adapt­ed from anoth­er work of Kafka’s, specif­i­cal­ly his best-known nov­el, it also con­cerns itself with the legal side of human affairs, at least on the sur­face. But when it becomes clear that the crime with which its bureau­crat pro­tag­o­nist Josef K. has been charged will nev­er be spec­i­fied, the sto­ry plunges into an alto­geth­er more trou­bling realm. We’ve all, at one time or anoth­er, felt to some degree like Joseph K., per­se­cut­ed by an ulti­mate­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble sys­tem, legal, social, or oth­er­wise. And can we help but feel, espe­cial­ly in our high­ly medi­at­ed 21st cen­tu­ry, like Pla­to’s immo­bi­lized human, raised in dark­ness and made to build a world­view on illu­sions? As for how to escape the cave — or indeed to enter the law — it falls to each of us indi­vid­u­al­ly to fig­ure out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear John Malkovich Read Plato’s “Alle­go­ry of the Cave,” Set to Music Mixed by Ric Ocasek, Yoko Ono & Sean Lennon, OMD & More

Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry Ani­mat­ed Mon­ty Python-Style

Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry Brought to Life with Clay­ma­tion

The Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix: From Pla­to and Descartes, to East­ern Phi­los­o­phy

Franz Kafka’s Exis­ten­tial Para­ble “Before the Law” Gets Brought to Life in a Strik­ing, Mod­ern Ani­ma­tion

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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