The Trial of Orson Welles

By Evan Fields

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K. He knew he had done nothing wrong but

one morning, he was arrested”. This is how The Trial opens. Written by Franz Kafka, it tells the story of Josef K, a man who is arrested one day for a crime that is never revealed to him nor the audience. He is forced to jump through an endless series of bureaucratic hoops that ware him down and eventually kill him. In this paper, we will discuss the history behind The Trial itself, how it relates to Welles, the differences between both works, the similarities between both authors, and how this film resonates as an autobiography for Welles himself.

Imagine government officials showing up at your office one day. You haven’t done anything

wrong or committed any crime, but you now sit before a panel of aggressive government officials. They ask question after question about your political beliefs, your friends’ political beliefs, and what messages you’re trying to send. They accuse you of being disloyal to America, to secretly holding an agenda to overthrow democracy. You answer honestly but they decide they don’t believe you. You weren’t convincing enough, and they add your name to a list of suspects to be watched and blacklisted by every corporation you might happen to work with.

This is what happened to Welles and many others working in Hollywood during in the 1940’s

and 1950’s. It was a very culture-shifting time in America. Post-World War II had turned America into a global superpower and sworn enemies of the ever increasingly powerful U.S.S.R. Their new mission was to stop the spread of communism anywhere and everywhere possible. This was the mission that brought about the Cold War, and the Red Scare with it. Welles was neither a member of the communist party and issued a public denial that he was a Communist in 1941. “The Hearst papers have repeatedly described me as a communist. I am not a communist. I am grateful for our constitutional form of government.” It wasn’t enough for the Dies Committee or the FBI, who kept a file on him from 1941 to 1956 and added him to a group of people not to be trusted, and to be continuously investigated. According to James Naremore who received the FBI file of Welles due to the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI was keen on invading Welles’ privacy to dig up any dirt they could. “the Bureau designated Welles a threat to the internal security of the nation. For nearly ten years FBI operatives compiled secret reports on his political activities, his personal finances, and his love life. They followed up tips from crackpots and used Hedda Hopper's gossip column as a source of information about his behavior.”

The Trial by Franz Kafka is the story of Josef K, a man who is arrested as he wakes up one day for an unknown crime. He is made to go through a maddening process of judicial mazes and endless hoops to jump through as he is slowly broken down before being executed. He is forced to go to hearings he doesn’t know where or when are taking place and is scolded for showing up late. His uncle hires a lawyer who offers no help to K at any point. He gets his best advice from the court painter who tells him he’s already doomed. Franz Kafka, a Jewish man living in 1910’s anti-Semitic Eastern Europe with his controlling and abusive father, wrote the novel on and off over the course of ten years but felt so ashamed of his work he never actually finished the novel.

To an America under pressure of the “Red Scare”, reading The Trial felt eerily familiar. It

certainly struck a chord with Welles, who chose it from a list of 82 potential novels to make a film adaptation of. Despite The Trial not being in the public domain, Salkind and Welles were committed to make the film anyway. Salkind committed to a budget of 1.3 million dollars to make the film and committed to having Welles direct.

First and foremost, it is essential to see the obvious similarities in both works. The film The Trial

follows the same basic premise as the novel. Josef K, played by Anthony Perkins, is woken up by two mysterious agents who arrest him for a supposed crime that is never explained. Like the novel, he is forced to go through judicial proceedings that are never properly explained to him and belittled at every turn for not understanding them. He is chewed out for showing up late to a court hearing when he was never told when and where it would take place. He must go through a series of proceeding that have no rhyme or reason. He meets a court painter who gives him more useful advice than his actual lawyer.

Although, the film ends somewhat differently than the book. In the film, he is dragged out to be

executed. The agents try to blow him up with dynamite, although K throws it back at the executioners. Therefore, leaving it up to interpretation if K even gets executed in the first place. The book also ends with K’s execution, but it is not up for interpretation whether of not he does. He clearly dies in the end of the novel and stab him with a butcher’s knife rather than dynamite. The whole movie still echoes the same nightmarish feeling that makes the novel so unique and eerie to read.

The cinematography and production still keep to the heart of the original novel. The disturbing

feelings that the novel evokes are still very present in the film. This impressive camerawork can be attributed to Edmond Richard, a cinematographer that Welles would later work with again on The Chimes of Midnight. K works in a bank with giant rows of people behind him all working away, like cogs in a machine and goes to trial with balconies full of people staring down at him. All this imagery enforces just how powerless K is against the system as a whole, a perfect parallel with the theme of the novel. The performances of the characters themselves feel both disturbing and hilarious at the same time, much like Kafka’s writing. Hilarious in the sheer absurdity of the situation, disturbing in how much we can relate to this nightmarish struggle that K goes through. Strange government officials that stalk K and question his every sentence, while dodging every question from him. Josef K, despite overcoming fears, still shows that there are great fears for him to overcome.

But there are still some big differences in the stories. Although the sexual themes are present in

both works, the way the sexual encounters are handled is different. In the novel, K has sexual

encounters with Fraülein Bürstner, Leni, and the attendant’s wife. All of which are encounters that Kafka wants us to know that Josef K is eager for, even describing him “like a thirsty animal”. In the movie, Josef K is a lot more reluctant to these advances. Some critics have speculated Welles is alluding that Josef K is gay with rejecting these advances. Even Roger Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, wrote in 2000 “From an article by Edward Guthmann in the San Francisco Chronicle, I learn that Welles confided to his friend Henry Jaglom that he knew Perkins was a homosexual, and used that quality in Perkins to suggest another texture in Joseph K, a fear of exposure. The whole homosexuality thing--using Perkins that way--was incredible for that time, Jaglom told Guthmann. It was intentional on Welles's part: He had these three gorgeous women (Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli) trying to seduce

this guy, who was completely repressed and incapable of responding. That provides an additional key to the film, which could be interpreted as a nightmare in which women make demands Joseph K is uninterested in meeting, while bureaucrats in black coats follow him everywhere with obscure threats of legal disaster.”

While I respect Ebert immensely, I respectfully disagree with this take. To be perfectly clear, I

don’t disagree that it’s possible Welles intentionally made for Josef K to be gay, there just isn’t enough evidence for that to be the case. It would appear Roger Ebert and other critics are basing this theory off the hearsay of someone who used to know Welles. This is not enough evidence to confirm anything about Josef K’s sexuality. The basis of the entire theory is only supported by the fact that Josef K rejects women throughout the film.

For one, it implies that any man who rejects a woman is secretly homosexual. This is obviously

not the case and is a very narrow view of sexuality. It’s possible for there to be members of a person’s preferred sex that they’re not attracted to. This assumption is also based on the idea that Josef K. is rejecting these women because he’s not attracted to them. However, that is not confirmed by the film or by Orson Welles in any interview or commentary. Josef K is a very guilt-ridden man in every aspect of his life. It’s very possible that this guilt falls over into his sexuality as well. One of Kafka’s biggest themes in the novel is sex. Even though no one ever finds out what K is guilty of, all the sex in the story alludes to what it might be; his own sexuality. Sex and sexuality is something many people in general feel ashamed of, despite it just being part of being human. Josef K rejecting women doesn’t necessarily allude to him not being attracted to them, but rather his shame of his own nature. Although this theme is the same, the difference in their practice. Kafka’s K is ashamed of his promiscuous lifestyle, whereas Welles’ K is ashamed of his sexuality to being with.

The biggest difference is with the main character himself. The film’s Josef K holds his own and stands confident while his luck gets worse and worse. The courts endless process of bureaucratic nonsense doesn’t weigh down on his mental health. Although he potentially dies at the end of the film, he does so with a smile on his face. This is a heavy contrast from the novel’s version of Josef K, who gets more depressed and physically weaker as the trial goes on. He accepts his terrible hand in life and finds less and less motivation to change what he considers to be unchangeable. This is the central difference between the movie and the book. Welles’s Josef argues with the police that invade his room in the opening of the film, while Kafka’s Josef contemplates suicide in the first chapter. However, there is nowhere more obvious of this contrast between the two versions of the main protagonist than in the ending of both works.

The novel ends with K being executed by the two “gentlemen” from the beginning. His struggles

at first but loses the will to fight on quickly. In the end he dies shameful that he didn’t have the will to fight on, comparing his plight to an animal being put down, as Kafka writes in the ending of The Trial “He raised both hands and spread out all his fingers. But the hands of one of the “gentleman” were laid on K.’s throat, while the other pushed the knife deep into his heart and twisted it there, twice. As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.” The film ends the same way, but K’s reaction is much different. K laughs and smiles throughout his execution, showing no fear of death or his executioners. He even throws the dynamite meant to kill him back at the two gentlemen, leaving it ambiguous if he even dies at all. This ending perfectly captures how different the two portrayals of K are. And to truly understand this, we must look at the two artists who made the two different versions of The Trial.

To first begin, it is important to note the differences between the artists, Kafka and Welles.

Welles was a renaissance man, and although he is most often associated with cinema, he received renown acclaim for both theatre and radio. In 2003, Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast was inducted as one of the first 50 recordings to be preserved in the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress. This is a big difference from Kafka, whose only artistic medium was writing. They were also different in the way that their work was perceived and celebrated during their life. Orson Welles was a celebrity almost his entire adult life, and regularly made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, some nights even substituting for the host. Kafka didn’t publish most of his work and the work he did publish, didn’t sell very well. Living in these two different conditions no doubt had drastic impacts on their life and unconsciously transferred into their writing.

Despite some differences, Kafka and Welles share quite a lot more in common. Despite growing

up in different times and cultures, they displayed similar traits. Both Kafka and Welles left many projects unfinished. Kafka never finished writing The Castle, Amerika or even technically The Trial itself. Welles never completed Don Quixote or The Other Side of The Wind (during his lifetime). Both held skeptical views about religion. Despite being raised Jewish, Franz Kafka had declared himself an atheist as a child. Orson Welles once stated to be Catholic, but there isn’t a large body of work supporting that he was a practicing Catholic, and some of Welles’ works such as his play The Unthinking Lobster is a satire of religious movies at the time. In 1982, he told Merv Griffin “I don’t pray really. Because I don’t want to bore God.”

Another striking similarity is both had very complicated and unhealthy relationships with their

fathers. Kafka was terrified of his father, a terror that would haunt him his entire life. He describes this horrifying relationship in his 47-page letter to his father that Hermann Kafka never actually read because his son was too scared to ever actually give it to him. In this letter, we can see clearly just how abusive and manipulative Hermann Kafka was towards his son and how much this fear impacted his development and adult life. He recalls one particular memory of his childhood; “I was whining persistently for water one night, certainly not because I was thirsty, but in a probability partly to be annoying… You lifted me out of my bed, carried me out onto the pavalatche, and left me all alone, standing outside the locked door in my nightshirt…. This incident certainly made me obedient for a time, but how it damaged me on the inside. Years later it still tormented me that this giant man, my father, the ultimate authority, could enter my room at any time, almost unprovoked, carry me from my bed out onto the pavlatche, that I meant so little to him.” Kafka writes of his feelings of inferiority to his father all throughout his letter and his shame in betraying his father by never meeting his expectations.

Welles’ mother died on May 10, 1924. Merely four days after Welles’ 9th birthday. Welles'

father died from alcohol poisoning when Orson was 15, although his official death certificate says he died from chronic heart and kidney disease. A fact that Orson blamed himself for as he described in a Paris Vogue interview in 1982. “Convinced—as I am now—that I had killed my father.” Welles claims that he had abandoned his father to get him to stop drinking, a strategy he believes caused his depressed father to overdrink. Welles called his treatment of his father “inexcusable” as he told biographer Barbara Leaming “I don’t want to forgive myself.” The death of anyone’s father would have a profound impact on him, Welles included. This trauma is exemplified by the fact that Welles viewed himself having a significant role in his own father’s death, believing himself to have betrayed him by abandoning him in a time of need. It’s perhaps this moment that explains why many of Welles’ stories center around betrayal. The climax in Touch of Evil involves Menzies betraying Quinlan by wearing a wire and trying to get him to confess. In The Lady from Shanghai, Michael O’Hara is betrayed by Elsa, as he learns Grisby and her were planning to kill Bannister and frame him for the murder. The fact that the themes of betrayal appear so often in Welles’ stories allude to his intense feelings of betrayal in his own


Welles and Kafka have a lot in common in immeasurable difficulties thrown at them in life.

However, their biggest difference is in their reaction to them. Welles was blacklisted by Hollywood for being progressive and an alleged communist sympathizer. His first Hollywood film gave his audiences massive expectations that he would always feel annoyed to be compared to. He was targeted by his own industry for funding his own projects and painted as a sellout for doing commercials to fund them. But despite all that, Welles never gave up hope. He continued to make films for his whole life, no matter

what obstacles came before him.

Franz Kafka also lived in oppression but a different kind than Orson Welles. Kafka wanted to be a

writer, but his abusive father disapproved. He spent his whole life working as an insurance clerk, a job he was referred to by his father, a job he wrote that he hated in quite a few letters to loved ones. He was filled with fear and self-hatred. He never married. He was never proud of his own writing. He published few stories in his lifetime and none of them sold well. His stories read likes nightmares, people thrust into horrifying situations for no reason and suffer all the consequences that go with it. His protagonists often die miserable and shunned by all. They act like Greek tragedies without the hubris. Franz Kafka hated his own work and asked his best friend to burn his unfinished books after his death. Luckily, Max Brod had them published instead.

I bring this up to draw my conclusion: in the same way Franz Kafka based Josef K. off himself,

Welles’ version of Josef K. is based on himself. Unlike Kafka, Welles’ instincts were never to give up. He unconsciously describes this when telling of his reasons for changing the ending in a 1962 interview “I couldn’t put my name to a work that implies man’s ultimate surrender. Being on the side of man, I had to show him in his final hour, undefeated.” The idea of simply giving up and accepting your terrible lot in life is an idea so vile to Welles that he refuses to have his name attached to anything that represents it.

The true reason Welles called The Trial his greatest film at the time of its release was because

this truly was his most personal film. The Trial is as much an autobiography for Welles as it was for Kafka and the distinction between the two characters proves this. Welles is a visionary of cinema, but more so, he is a hopeful visionary of cinema. The Trial is a depressing novel about the hopelessness of life. But Orson’s “K”, much like Welles himself never gives up, even when the odds are heavily stacked against him. Orson was blacklisted by Hollywood over beliefs he didn’t actually have, but he refused to stop making movies. It’s for this reason that he couldn’t let The Trial end any other way. To end it like the novel would’ve destroyed the part where Welles related to the character. It’s also for this reason that The Trial stills resonate with us today. Anyone who has ever struggled through a terrible tine and fought their way though can relate to Welles’ version of Josef K.


“Orson Welles on THE TRIAL”. Huw Wheldon. BBC.


McBride, Joseph, Whatever happened to Orson Welles?, University Press of Kentucky,


Naremore, James, The Magical World of Orson Welles, University of Illinois Press,


Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Verlag Die Schmiede. 1925.

“Orson Welles Interview”. Michael Parkinson. 1974.

Naremore, James. The Trial: The FBI vs. Orson Welles, Film Comment.


Gilman, Sander. Franz Kafka. Reaktion Books. 2005.

Kafka, Franz “Letter to his Father” New York: Schocken Books


“The Trial”. Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun Times. 2/25/2000. Web. 5/5/2022.

Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles: A Biography. Limelight.


Frank, Brady. Citizen Welles. NY Creative Publishing. 2013.

56 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All