The Trial

The Trial   

Directed by Orson Welles, 1962
Adapted by Welles from the novel by Franz Kafka

The cinematography and lighting in this film work together to produce a mood of  judgement, anxiety  and guilt, a dark world where the character we side with is unfairly treated. “A Wellesian theme is … ‘the war of the worlds’ where an extraordinary world encroaches on the ordinary … and the irrational confront the stable and ordinary.” (Mamer, 2006)

The first 15 minutes of the film are set in Joseph K’s bedroom and surrounding rooms.

The opening shot is a close up of his sleeping face with him nearly upside down, which can infer death. He awakens in the morning to a man entering his bedroom who then starts interrogating him. Unsettlingly another man and then more enter his private room and go through his things interrogating him and not answering any questions. He discovers he is under arrest but can’t discover the reason why. He dresses while they interrogate and search his belongings. His landlady serves him breakfast and reassures him but the men are still there and it continues. On the balcony with the interrogator he observes the prostitute who lives in the next room returning from work, argues with the landlady who doesn’t like the prostitute and then we see him watch her enter the house in extreme low key lighting in an over the shoulder shot.

Low key lighting is a choice for directors who want to portray the strong contrast of light and shadows in a gloomy threatening world. It is often associated with mysteries, horror films, crime stories and psychological dramas and film noirs. (Mamer, 2006) (David Bordwell, 2010).  ‘Film Noir’ is a French term describing films that were very pessimistic and dark in their message and low key look. (Mamer, 2006) Low key lighting is high contrast between key lighting and fill lighting. (Mamer, 2006)

The quality of the light used is intense and casting hard shadows  (David Bordwell, 2010)  Side lighting is often used in this piece which results in the subject being half in the shadows and half lit, this evokes a feeling of moral ambiguity or, split personality or, as in the case of the prostitute, femme fatale. (Mamer, 2006) The side-lighting comes from a window and there are dark shadows in the corners and on the unlit side of faces, hinting at menacing in the interrogators. Often the hero is front lit which shows his innocence and increases our empathy.

At the start of the film the close-up of his face is a high angle shot. For the rest of these 15 minutes low angle shots are used a lot, suggesting power and domination  in these intruding men and vulnerability in him as he looks up at them eg from his bed and in the girl’s room. (Dick, 2005)

The shots used vary from close up to medium and long shots, with a very high angle shot from a high balcony, looking down at a car arriving. This makes the person who get out look vulnerable as we discover later that she is when she gets evicted from her room. (Dick, 2005)

There are some very long takes where 1 camera is used for a long time tracking and panning to follow the actors. Tracking or moving the camera can sustain a mood for longer, panning or turning or tilting the camera, can act as a silent commentator (Dick, 2005). The camera tracks around the furniture and through doors as it follows the men around the room and into other rooms. Katz says in designing movement for the travelling camera it is better to work with, rather than against terrain. (Katz, 1991) It evokes the uncomfortable feeling as our man tries to get around the room as he arises and dresses with the other men in the way.

In between the long takes are some quick ones eg shot/reverse shot which is alternating shots of characters in conversation so that we see one then the other of the characters as they talk (Dick, 2005). This quick cutting between shots increases our agitation as he tries to reason with the men but gets into more trouble as he speaks.

Through the movement and the alternation between long takes and short Welles portrays the advancing doubt, penetrating worry, awful dread and the disappearance of peace. (Martinez, 1962)

The Trial is submerged in anguish. In order to achieve this effect he has gone back to the style of Citizen Kane with its big crane movements, its camera at floor level and its monumental tracking. What we see is the whole Welles box of tricks from his early style, governed by the twenty years of reflection that separate the two films. In The Trial shots are longer. Some go on for six minutes although the total number in the script goes beyond 700.” (Martinez, 1962)

These uses of cinematography and lighting techniques interact and enhance the story’s worrying moodiness. Together they help to portray the feelings of confusion and domination as poor Joseph is hassled in his bedroom and home.


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