Several days later, Josef prepares to return home after staying at the office well into the evening. As he walks down a corridor of his office building, he hears human voices crying out from behind a closed door. He decides to open it, and inside he finds Franz and Willem, the policemen who first placed him under arrest. They are about to be beaten by a third cane-wielding man who wears a leather executioner’s outfit.
This disturbing encounter is one of the story’s first truly sinister moments. That these men were in some random closet at Josef’s office suggests that his trial is further encroaching on his personal life, and also that the court is everywhere, judging everyone.
Franz and Willem explain to Josef that they are being punished because Josef condemned their behavior during his hearing. Josef counters that his complaints were factual and justified, but the policemen reply that they were simply desperate for money to support themselves. Josef tells them that he reported their conduct as a matter of principle, but never intended to see them punished. The cane-wielding man responds to this, saying that the policemen’s punishment is “both just and unavoidable.”
Once again, Josef is blamed for something out of his purview. He had no way of knowing how his words in court would have been interpreted, and just as importantly, he did not have knowledge of the policemen’s desperation. Moreover, the cane-wielding man’s notion of justice is worryingly devoid of transparency—instead, it treats the system’s rules as self-justifying: it assumes the court is just, and therefore assumes all its actions must be just.
Willem protests against the cane-wielder’s words, saying that he is only being punished because of Josef’s complaints. Moreover, Willem adds, Josef has ruined the policemen’s career prospects. Willem’s interruption is punished by a blow from the cane.
The policemen’s punishment is framed by the punisher as a consequence of the system, but framed by Willem as Josef’s fault alone. Mystifyingly, no other individual considers himself responsible—the entire system seems to run itself based on blind assumptions, fear, and compliance.
Josef offers to pay the cane-wielder not to hit the policemen, but the man declines on the grounds that Josef could then report him for bad conduct. Josef tries to explain that he thinks the overall system is really the problem, but the cane-wielder shrugs him off and commences beating the policemen.
Every person—even the cane-wielder—is subject to the court’s punishment, and the fear sparked by that punishment drives conformity and compliance. Josef begins to see that the issue is the larger system, but this insight drives no action, as he is still gripped within the system, unable to escape—just like everyone else. Following this logic, there is a hint here of the trial operating also as a metaphor for life and death—everyone is sentenced to death, everyone struggles to avoid it, and yet no one can. Life, in other words, is a rigged ”system,” just like the court.
Franz begins to make horrible noises as he suffers under the cane, and Josef promptly leaves the room. He tells a coworker not to worry about the noise, and blames it on a dog yelping outside.
Just as in Josef’s surreptitious entrance to Fraulein Burstner’s room or his embarrassment at being watched during his interrogation, the prevalence of socialized insecurities over morals is again illustrated here. Josef is willing to overlook injustice in order to avoid public humiliation.
Josef stews with anxiety about the policemen’s predicament, but convinces himself that Franz’s screaming forced his hand. He had to make sure the group went undiscovered by his coworkers.
In much the same way as the cane-wielding man uses the rules of his system to absolve himself of personal culpability, Josef deliberately constrains himself with rationalizations about social convention in order to excuse his tolerance of injustice.
The next day, Josef’s thoughts are dominated by the anguished policemen. That evening, he revisits the room where they were being whipped, and to his great surprise he finds the same three men in the same arrangement as the night before. Franz and Willem cry out for help, but Josef quickly shuts the door. Distraught, Josef orders some of his subordinates to clean out the room, and then heads home for the night.
The policemen’s horrifyingly prolonged suffering characterizes the justice system as somehow beyond the temporality that governs Josef’s day-to-day affairs. The judiciary is beginning to seem ubiquitous and omnipotent in ways that lie beyond human power and comprehension—and, again, by pushing these boundaries the story is able to make the court operate on the level of a real-world but exaggeratedly horrifyingly out-of-control court; a court that judges one’s worth rather than one’s deeds; the “court of public opinion” in which everyone is always judging everyone else; a metaphor for the “court of life” in which all people are sentenced to death. And it is certainly possible to find other interpretations of the court as well.