In October of 1944, a few months after the liberation of France, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote short book called Réflexions sur la Question Juive. Its first English translations were titled The Jewish Question—it is one of the living books that announce themselves at the end of Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The currently available English translation has been retitled Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate.
Like much of Sartre, this work is noticeably imperfect, but what flashes of genius it contains are brilliant indeed, and remain pertinent. One passage that struck me is this: “Today these Jews whom the Germans did not deport or murder are coming back to their homes. Many were among the first members of the Resistance; others had sons or cousins in Leclerc’s army. Now all France rejoices and fraternizes in the streets; social conflict seems temporarily forgotten; the newspapers devote whole columns to stories of prisoners of war and deportees. Do we say anything about the Jews? Do we give a thought to those who died in the gas chambers at Lublin? Not a word. Not a line in the newspapers. That is because we must not irritate the anti-Semites; more than ever we need unity. Well-meaning journalists will tell you: ‘In the interest of the Jews themselves, it would not do to talk too much about them just now.’ For four years French society has lived without them; it is just as well not to emphasize too vigorously the fact that they have reappeared.”
As I said, Sartre wrote this in October of 1944. At that point in time Lublin was the only death camp the Allies had found. By the time Orson Welles began work on The Stranger, in the fall of 1945, the other camps had become known to the world. Welles had been cast in the film in the role of Hans Kindler, a fleeing Nazi war criminal (by the movie’s lights, a kind of wunderkind of genocide, a slightly ironic position in which to place Welles in a Hollywood picture) and was eventually persuaded to direct it as well. In the second volume of his protean Welles biography, Simon Callow writes “[t]he degree of [Welles’] input into the script has never been clearly determined, though it seems almost certain that he must have been responsible for the speeches in which Rankin/Kindler analyzes the nature of the Nazi quest, so familiar are they in theme and cadence to Welles’ own speeches, articles and columns.” “Rankin” is the alias Kindler has taken in America; another way this true believer goes undercover is to pretend to be not just thoroughly anti-Nazi, but anti-German. One of his speeches occurs at a dinner scene; Edward G. Robinson’s secret agent, posing as an antiques maven, is dining with Rankin/Kindler, Kindler’s new bride, played by Loretta Young, and her father and teen brother. The scene has many pleasures, one of them being Loretta Young pronouncing the word “Carthaginian,” it is most notable for the way the real Kindler reveals himself to Robinson’s character. Growing increasingly heated in anti-Teutonic fervor (and Callow is right; the words and the way Welles pronounces them are kind of like an inverted, zealous variant of Harry Lime’s “cuckoo clock” speech in The Third Man), Kindler says: “The basic principles of equality and freedom never have and never will take root in Germany. The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue. ‘All men are created equal,’ ‘Liberté egalité fraternité,’ but, in German…”
Kindler’s eager young brother-in-law, played by a very appealing Richard Long, butts in:
“There’s Marx. The proletarians unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains…”
“But Marx wasn’t a German. Marx was a Jew,” Kindler responds, almost instantaneously, calm but definite. This differentiation is what gives away Kindler to Robinson’s character. It is also a staggering dramatic manifestation of anti-Semitic thought, which Sartre dissects with incredible vigor in his own book: You’re not THIS, you are THAT, a Jew.
Elsewhere in Sartre, he writes, of the frustrations the Jew experiences in French society: “…it seems to him at one and the same time that his efforts are always crowned with success—for he knows the astonishing successes of his race—and that a curse has made them empty, for he will never acquire the security enjoyed by the most humble Christian.” Sartre continues; “This is perhaps one of the meanings of The Trial by the Jew, Kafka. Like the hero of that novel, the Jew is engaged in a long trial. He does not know his judges, scarcely even his lawyers; he does not know what he is charged with, yet he knows he is considered guilty; judgment is continually put off—for a week, two weeks—he takes advantage of these to prove his position in a thousand ways, but every precaution taken at random pushes him a little deeper into guilt. His external situation may appear brilliant, but the interminable trial invisibly wastes him away, and it happens sometimes, as in the novel, that men seize him, carry him off on the pretense that he has lost his case, and murder him in some vague area of the suburbs.”
Orson Welles made a film of Kafka’s The Trial in the early ‘60s. Like The Stranger, it was not a project of his own conception. The picture was brought to him by the producer Alexander Salkind, and while the project was plagued by intense money problems it turned out to be one of the very few productions up until that point on which Welles enjoyed complete artistic autonomy right down to the release cut. Setting the story in a stark, black-and-white, completely commerce-and-media-free version of then-contemporary Europe, Welles deracinates the story in particular by casting Anthony Perkins in the role of Josef K. I have not been able to dig up anything in my Welles library to suggest that Welles located a particular kind of otherness in Perkins’ being a thoroughly closeted gay man. Callow addresses the situation thusly: “Perkins’ performance—inherently neurotic, though not notably anxious—does indeed suggest a man with a secret (not much acting called for there).” Perkins’ all-American mode of nervousness suggests Edgar Allan Poe more than Kafka and of course it also suggests Alfred Hitchcock. One thing it never suggests is Jewishness.
And yet Welles, in interviews years after making the film, discusses The Trial in terms of Kafka’s Jewishness. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, explaining why he tampered with the ending of the book, Welles extrapolates: “In the end of the book he lies down there and they kill him. I don’t think Kafka could have stood for that after the deaths of six million Jews. That terrible fact occurred after the writing of The Trial and I think it made Kafka’s ending impossible. If you conceive of K as a Jew, as I did. I don’t mean as a Jewish Jew, but as a non-Christian. It just made it morally impossible for me to see a man who might even possibly be taken by the audience for a Jew lying down and allowing himself to be killed that way.”
Is that true? We have no way of knowing. People on social media today frequently cite a quote from Kafka about there being an infinite amount of hope—but not for us. The quote’s source is a statement he made to his friend and biographer Max Brod, translated in 1947 as “Plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope—but not for us.” More reliable, perhaps, is the aphorism: “In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world.” Welles’ argument with Kafka is summed up by Callow thusly: “man is guilty but mankind is not doomed.” Welles’ confusion concerning Kafka has theological roots, as well: “K is not metaphysically guilty at birth as conceived by Kafka, since Kafka was a Jew. The idea of guilt at birth is Christian,” he said to Bogdanovich.
Sartre insists: “The disquietude of the Jew is not metaphysical, it is social.” In Welles’ film, the anxiety is not social as such, it’s free-floating, often hovering between the stools of the metaphysical and the erotic, as Perkins’ Josef K is befuddled in turn by Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli. Andrew Sarris called The Trial “the most hateful, the most repellent, and the most perverted film ever made,” but the movie’s particular feel comes from Welles’ specifically American form of optimism abrading Kafka’s pessimism. Which, as Sartre teaches us, was far less abstract than we sometimes like to make it. And as visually beautiful and thrilling and unsettling as Welles’ movie is, one constantly senses that it is a work that is tortuously uncertain of what it wants to mean. This is never in doubt, I think, when reading Kafka.
In the prologue to the film proper, Welles observes of Kafka’s novel: “It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream. Of a nightmare.” Welles’ film is best seen as the filmmaker’s own dream/nightmare of Kafka. While I would not go so far as to say that a work of art palpably changes with the times, the times compel us to see works of art differently. Today’s circumstance does not compel a new reading of Welles’ Trial, but it does demand that we adopt Sartre’s reading of Kafka.