Orson Welles' Dark Vision of Kafka: The Trial

For me, The Trial is hands down Orson Welles' greatest film. Citizen Kane is certainly his best known, and Touch of Evil seems to be a bigger crowd pleaser; but for my money, The Trial is his greatest work. To be certain, a lot of the reason for that is simply because it's built on the writing of Franz Kafka. But Welles vibrant style is a perfect match for the material. One only has to watch the 1993 remake, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Anthony Hopkins, Jason Robards and Alfred Molina, which was rather good itself, to see how much Welles brought to the material and elevated it. Hell, just Welles' introductory monologue, which has been cut from several DVD editions of this film, works on a level higher than the remake manages to reach.

Update 2/23/15 - 3/18/17: Added Alpha's DVD edition to the mix, which really shows the range of quality this film's been shown in.

Update 11/24/22: It's The Trial's 60th Anniversary, and Studio Canal is celebrating by giving the film an all new, 4k restoration, in a new BD/ UHD combo pack.
Anthony Perkins is perfect as the multifaceted everyman who's woken up in his bedroom by mysterious, gruff officers who interrogate him and tell him he's under arrest but allowed to continue going to work. Perkins remains relatable without even being perfectly likeable as he continually grasps out for some sliver of control or stability as the world around him transforms into a paranoid, bureaucratic nightmare. This film is evocatively photographed, with tone, atmosphere, lighting and space changing mid-shot, shot in huge and claustrophobic locations in both Paris and Yugoslavia. Kafka's writing is the kind that stays with you forever, and Welles marries that with images that stick with you just as long.
The Trial has had a bit of a storied past with its DVD releases. As I mentioned, some versions have been cut. And a few different but not terribly impressive stabs were taken at the transfer. For the most part, you weren't going to do much better than Image's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD from 2000, except it's long out of print and has wound up getting pretty costly. The French import seemed to be slightly better, but for most fans, it was a matter of dealing with even worse fullscreen junkers, like the 2003 DVD from Alpha, while waiting for the eventual blu-ray. And finally, that happened in 2012, when Studio Canal (who'd also released that French DVD I Just mentioned in 2003), released it as a special edition in France, Germany and the UK for its 50th anniversary. That was great, but now it's its 60th anniversary, and Studio Canal is back with an all new restoration from a 4k scan of the original 35mm negative, on both BD and UHD.
1) 2000 Image DVD; 2) 2003 Alpha DVD; 3) 2012 Studio Canal BD;
4) 2022 Studio Canal BD; 5) 2022 Studio Canal UHD.

The Image and first Studio Canal framings (it's a micro-smidgen zoomed in compared to the Image) both claim to be at the OAR of 1.66:1, but are slightly off.  Image is 1.60:1, and SC is closer at 1.64:1, with the blu slightly pillarboxed and the DVD windowboxed, as it's unfortunately non-anamorphic.  The 2022 SCs (the BD includes the new restoration, too, not just the UHD) finally get it exactly right at 1.66:1.  The framing has also been adjusted differently, revealing a little more horizontal and vertical information.  Meanwhile, the Alpha is fullscreen, and even overly skinny for that, coming in at 1.28:1, cutting off the sides something fierce. It's also got a serious interlacing problem that the Image disc doesn't have, and obviously the later HD ones don't.

There's no question that even the old blu is superior to the DVDs, looking cleaner and more defined.  It's definitely more contrasty, as well as brighter with decidedly whiter whites, whereas the Image DVD looks muddier, although you might at first say that the lower contrast is more subtle and natural, even intentionally creepier.  But it's also losing information in the shadows due to black crush.  Of course, the Alpha is the muddiest of all, with very little dynamic range.   The 2022 restoration goes darker again (even the BD, not just the inherently darker nature of HDR discs), returning to Image's more ominous mood but without the crush.  Grain is finer and much more tightly controlled even on the BD, and looks downright perfect on the UHD.
All the discs feature the original English mono (with a little extra hiss on the Alpha), but the Studio Canals bump it up to DTS-HD in 2016 and LPCM in 2022.  Studio Canal also offers optional English subtitles, which the DVDs lacked, plus additional German and French dub and sub tracks, on all three of their discs.

As you could probably predict, the DVDs are nearly barebones except for the trailer, which yes, even the Alpha had.  The only other thing that the Image DVD had, which none of the Studio Canals do, is the alternate opening made for US television. This isn't as much as a loss as it sounds, however, as no original footage was shot for this opening. It's just a narrator introducing the cast and plot over stills from the film. Curiously, he tells us the whole story right up to and including the very ending moment - wow, spoilers! - before bidding us to watch the film. It would've been nice to have this on the special editions as just another little bonus for completists, but it's really not important.
Especially since Studio Canal cooked up a bunch of new goodies for The Trial's 50th anniversary.  We can start with the 'making of' documentary, which is 30 minutes long and features interviews with the film's DoP Edmond Richard and Welles' assistant director Sophie Becker, who have plenty of first-hand memories of making the film and traveling with Welles. It's rounded out by a literature professor to address the Kafka side of things, and filmmaker Andre S. Labarthe (admittedly the first time I've heard of him) to talk about the film's style.  Richard then returns in a separate interview piece that focuses more on the technical side of making the picture and adding some more anecdotes he missed in the first doc.

There's also a great British television episode of a 60s series called Tempo which interviews Welles and takes a retrospective look at his career. It gets into some interesting areas, and Welles is very open and forthcoming. There's an interview with Steven Berkoff, who's a bit of a Kafka historian and gives a lot more information on the original novel and how the film represents it. Finally, there's the theatrical trailer, a 20 page booklet and the film's deleted scene, which has been floating around online, but never properly preserved on disc. I believe the old French DVD may've shown a clip of it, but without any of the words. See, the audio for the deleted scenes has been lost (although you hear a brief clip of it in the trailer), but for this blu-ray, they've used Welles' script to add complete subtitles, so we can finally understand everything the characters are saying.
And for the 60th anniversary?  Well, it's not all good news.  Some of the 50th anniversary features have been lost: specifically the 'making of' and the episode of Tempo.  No booklet this time either.  The Richard and Berkoff interviews are still here, though, as are the deleted scene and the trailer.  And SC kinda makes up for what they lost with what they added: an hour-long TCM original documentary called This Is Orson Welles from 2015.  It includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, Welles' eldest daughter and of course Peter Bogdanovich, among others.  They also added a new trailer for the restoration, if anybody cares, and this release comes in an attractive slipcover.  But I'm particularly disappointed to lose that 'making of,' which I think I'd still rather have over the TCM doc, since it focused specifically on The Trial and offered some unique insight.
Still, it's easily worth it for this new, ultimate presentation of the film.  And you can always pick up a copy of the older version for the additional extras.  The BD came along and erased the need for any of the many DVDs floating around out there, but it was still flawed.  And now those flaws have been erased, while also bringing this film forward into the next generation of physical media.  It's unquestionably cause for celebration.


  1. I found your piece somewhat confusing but if you're referring to the the Studio Canal Japan Region one with French opening titles,I couldn't agree more. I find it a fantastic release!

    1. I meant the Studio Canal blu from the UK, but I imagine they're the same, content-wise. But good call, in my newer articles I spell out each edition I'm comparing a little more clearly, so I'll tweak this post, too. Thanks!