Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard presented their visions of sclerotic authoritarianism just a few years apart, with the American director entering the final phase of his filmmaking career and the French director ending the first phase of his. They each took inspiration from literature, in one case Franz Kafka’s most famous novel and in the other the detective Lemmy Caution, a popular character created by British pulp novelist Peter Cheyney. Starting, in many ways, from opposite directions, Welles and Godard ended up with similar balances: genre fireworks coexisting with philosophical and political appeals.
The two films share one actor, Akim Tamiroff. Chris Darke writes of his appearance in Alphaville, “it’s as though he’d taken a wrong turning somewhere in the totalitarian labyrinth of The Trial, only to find that he’d arrived in another dystopian maze, a further suburb of hell.” The stories, in fact, share an ostensible setting: Paris, or perhaps a generic western city (The Trial, for one, was shot all over Europe), the perfect location for all the brutalizing and constricting forces of the modern world. This is not the Paris of the romantic imagination, but a strange nightmare vision. If I may borrow from Rod Serling, it’s a Paris not only of sight and sound, but of mind. To watch these movies in succession is to set oneself up for an equilibrium-jarring evening.
In examining how these movies look at roughly the same societal problem from opposite angles, there’s no better place to start than with language. The railroading of Josef K. in The Trial is partly caused by failures of language. The man’s doom is never adequately explained or even defined; that’s the whole point. It’s enough that K. feels guilty and is outmatched by the system that’s crushing him. From the jump, he’s caught flatfooted, allowing his none-too-bright arresting officers to tie his tongue into knots with a trio of Freudian slips (“unabusive,” “ovular,” and “pornograph”). This lack of facility with words — punctuated by long, condemnatory stares — is a counterpoint to the Orwellian society of Alphaville. Governed by a supercomputer, this Paris of some vague future is a place where all the “illogical” words have been slowly pruned from the dictionary. Eventually, the story becomes the simplest of rebellions against such a cold, rational intelligence in favor of emotion and poetry.
One of the protagonists is utterly helpless to stop the boot from stamping on a human face forever, while the other is anything but. In this way, and others, Anthony Perkins and Eddie Constantine were perfectly cast in their respective films. Carrying over some of the old Norman Bates energy, Perkins was able to imbue Josef K., in outline a mere victim, with subcutaneous repression and dark instincts. Much as Godard causes his purportedly urgent plot to lope to its conclusion, K. finds time to be distracted, reasonably enough, by minor characters played by Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli. Traversing the irrational corridors of Welles’ dreamscape, he becomes a bit more frenzied and desperate but somehow never loses his boyish open-faced passivity. Constantine’s Lemmy Caution is basically the complete opposite: a craggy older man, a hard-boiled detective, unflappable and totally in control even when he falls in love. Constantine nailed the character’s stoicism, and he was aided immensely by Godard’s self-conscious approach to genre. Caution’s derring-do is “cool” with elaborate quotation marks. The detective breaks into the system from the outside, while Josef K. unwittingly becomes trapped within it.
What, exactly, is the nature of that system, then? The autocracies are fuzzily represented, meant to be universally applicable. One obvious commonality is the room-filling computer, which situates these films in the early 1960s. The technological anxieties haven’t gone out of style by any means, but these early expressions of them are especially eerie for their sheer open-endedness. The Trial doesn’t give much time to its computer (a scene in which the electronic brain calculates Josef K.’s standing before the law was cut), but neither does any human judge ever emerge to suss out the truth of the matter. In Welles’ The Trial, the future is comprehensively atheist, an unsinkable ship without a rudder. Alphaville makes a different statement by introducing artificial intelligence. The Alpha 60 computer that runs the show in Godard’s film has the specific aim of remaking human beings into something more like itself. As long as we can still remember intangible values, we have something that the machine mind can never grasp. But a systematic campaign of forgetting can be effective if there’s a sufficient projection of power behind it.
Despite that brief reference to contemporary technology, The Trial doesn’t inhabit a specific time and calls back to the past in certain ways. Cars exist in this world, but Josef K. spends the duration on foot. (In keeping with dream logic, spatial relations are fluid; K. often finds himself transported from one place to another in the span of a cut.) Spaces are often cluttered: netted with iron or wooden beams, clogged with heaps of papers and dusty law books. A looming statue is draped in a ghostly sheet. A woman in a leg brace drags a trunk over uneven terrain. It’s all insistently physical and oppressive. Alphaville, meanwhile, takes place in a sleek modernist environment without any of these signs of disorder. Famously, Godard produced a vision of the future simply by looking at some of the new architecture of Paris, constructing an alien world from what was already there — wide, spiraling staircases that seem to float; garish neon signs; sterile hallways. These are all meant to prepare the viewer to encounter the theaters filled with electric chairs and the synchronized swimming teams that summarily stab dissidents in the pool.
Welles had a serious mission and knew how to communicate the stakes. It’s easy to see Josef K. as a stand-in for the director, biting the hands that fed him and dooming himself. Welles’ exploration of his own psyche produced a true cinematic nightmare, expressing all the varieties of situational terror and disorientation. Godard was still mostly interested in the deconstruction of genre, although his deeper inquiries were beginning to germinate in Alphaville. This film might be the most traditionally amusing of his entire career, though it faces stiff competition from the likes of Breathless and A Woman Is a Woman. In making Alphaville, Godard recycled some of the strongest parts of both those earlier movies: the distillation of Hollywood cool and the guiding spirit of Anna Karina, the director’s muse and ex-wife. As this early explosion of productivity from the director neared its end, he was about to bid farewell to each of those influences. What Welles and Godard did with these films is what art has been doing for ages: express the plight of the individual who resists those large, unfeeling structures that attempt to cage him. These movies end very differently, but in a way the endings are equally disarming. We can identify them as toothy cinematic grins that unabashedly say, “Yes, there is a way to be free.”