I would have thought we were past this, but I've recently come to find that no, there's still a seemingly insurmountable gulf in people's attitudes towards Orson Welles. On one side, there are people who regard Citizen Kane as a unmatched masterpiece, and the tragedy of Welles's career is that he used up everything he had to get it made, and the rest of his filmmography is full of miserable half-formed mutant versions of better movies, all hopelessly done in by compromise and lack of budget and studio interference, but at least Touch of Evil turned out pretty okay. The other side, with people like me, regard Citizen Kane as a masterpiece that was indeed nearly matched at least a couple of times, and that it's a shame that his American films after 1941 were all so compromised, but holy shit just look at what he was doing in Europe! Some of the all-time masterpieces of cinema in there, and it's not even all that hard to find them.
And maybe the greatest of them all - it was Welles's favorite among his complete works - is his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, a Franco-German-Italian-Yugoslavian co-production ushered into being by future Superman impresario Alexander Salkind. It is, at the time of this writing, the only one of Welles's twelve narrative features that does not exist in a better-than-adequate home video version in North America (there is, however, a very good European Blu-ray), which is a damnable shame: out of all of Welles's films, it might be the one with the most complex visual style, even the most beautiful - though "beauty" is rarely in the eye of the beholder more than in connection with the concrete wilds of Zagreb, Rome, Milan, and the empty hulk of the Gare d'Orsay, a former train station in Paris (since turned into the Musée d'Orsay, one of Europe's largest art museums). Part of the point of The Trial, in fact, is that the locations and sets within it (the film credits no production designer, but art director Jean Mandaroux probably contributed a lot to the spaces, along with Welles himself) are all implacably inhuman, horrid angular places that lack any organic flow. They are geometric prisons, connected to each other like the discrete spaces of a nightmare.
Which is just as well, since that's basically what The Trial is, a nightmare. Kafka's book-length parable about a man put on a trial for a crime that is never named, by a legal structure that has no apparent embodiment, is already basically a nightmare, and Welles's screenplay follows the story extremely closely, watching as clerk Josef K. (Anthony Perkins, in the role of his career) falls from one inexplicable conversation with police, prosecutors, witnesses, and his own leering monster of an advocate (Welles), growing increasingly paranoid and manic as he runs out of points of logic to cling to. In theory, creating a physically concrete incarnation of the story should have made it feel more "real" than in the original prose form; in practice Welles & company have put considerable effort into the exact opposite being true. The film has the slippery narrative logic and visual intensity of Expressionist horror, and despite being peopled by real live actors on sets that were actually built, it seems impossible that this should ever have existed in physical space.
That's what sufficiently baroque imagery will do for you. The first film shot by cinematographer Edmond Richard (who'd later shoot Chimes at Midnight for Welles, and eventually worked with Buñuel on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), The Trial represents a hell of a debut: it's nothing less than one of the most distinctive-looking movies of the 1960s, something akin to what we might have had if the bold stylistic experiments of the late 1920s had continued on into the sound era. Richard and Welles embrace shadows and contrast, creating the impression of spaces through maximalist lighting and minimalist staging. This is, by and large, a terrifyingly empty film, with huge spaces in the Gare d'Orsay carved into sets only though patches of shadow; the handful of exteriors are like plunging into a vacuum, particularly one long tracking shot across a void between buildings that rise from the ground like huge glass-and-steel monuments from a dead civilization. This is a film of straight lines at severe angles defining the content of the frame, unreal spaces that themselves feel like the barely-formed spaces of a poorly-remembered dream, kicked off by a beautiful slideshow of fuzzy pinscreen illustrations by Alexandre Alexeieff that plunge us into an otherworldly state of mind even before the plot begins.
What impresses me most of all about The Trial is that, despite its faithfulness to Kafka's text (granting that faithfulness to The Trial, incomplete at the time of Kafka's death and given its chapter order by Max Brod, is all relative), it never feels like a literary adaptation. Everything about this material feels like it was conceived from the ground up to be expressed in these extreme visuals. Even as a story, it's impossible to separate this treatment of The Trial from the time and continent of its making. This is a post-World War II movie in ways both explicit and implicit; the awareness of the Holocaust and the repression behind the Iron Curtain are present in every bit of the plot and the look of the film, which belongs firmly in that tradition of Europe as a graveyard of modernist architecture that exploded in the 1960s. The emotional territory being explored is timeless, or at least as timeless as human beings living in terror that the power structures of the society around them could turn on them at any instant; this particular incarnation draws on the despair of life lived under the shadow of the A-bomb (which is, in the end, referenced visually, in maybe the one moment where I think the film goes too far in stating its themes) and with the immediate memory of the war, which perhaps gives it added potency (in my most heretical moment, I think I actually like The Trial as a movie more than I like The Trial as a book), but Perkins's performance is something close to universal. The descent through confusion into terror and rage he expresses are wrenched out of some primordial corner of himself, and coupled with the strong impression we get that this is all K's nightmare - a waking nightmare, maybe - the whole film generally absorbs Perkin's frenzy.
Welles, perhaps in a fit of his characteristic puckishness, once denied that there was any symbolic element to the film. Certainly, in any medium, The Trial demands to be read allegorically, but for the most part, I'm inclined to take Welles at his word. Totalitarian governments come and go, the psychic scarring of midcentury Europe eventually healed, but the existential panic of feeling like the world has decided to turn against you, specifically, remains a constant. What makes The Trial so powerful is the way that it depicts that panic through some of the most striking images in any motion picture, creating a purely emotional experience from purely aesthetic means. This is a genuinely nerve-wracking movie, viscerally hard to deal with; it is the closest thing that Orson Welles, one of the greatest visual storytellers the medium, ever produced came to making a horror film, and its raw impact is worthy of that once-in-lifetime combination of artist and content.