In a political climate where the distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them has disappeared, questions about civil rights, state power, and the responsibilities of the media are renewed. This situation gives unexpected urgency to Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, a nearly 20-year-old film. The timeliness of Criterion’s DVD has been widely noted, not least by Amy Taubin, who remarks in an essay included with the DVD that this film is among the few that “transcend their historical moment.”
That moment was Germany in the 1970s. The country endured a wave of terrorism by various groups whose tactics included kidnapping, hijacking, robbery, assassination, and bombing. The German state cracked down mercilessly; the media became hysterical; and Heinrich Böll, on whose novel the film is based, was one of the victims. When he criticized the tabloid Bild-Zeitung for over-coverage of the Baader-Meinhof gang, he was accused of sympathizing with terrorists.
Schlöndorff and von Trotta’s energetic adaptation of Böll’s novel belongs to a specific cinematic moment as well. It is part of the New German Cinema, that vaguely defined, socially conscious movement led by Wenders, Fassbinder, and Herzog, among others, who assaulted both movie convention and the established political order. Lost Honor certainly has a stylistic bravado, especially in its mingling of color and black and white, but its artistry lies more in the subject matter and the telling. This is a Kafkaesque nightmare, possible only in a modern, bureaucratic state with a hyperactive media.
Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) attends a party where she meets Ludwig Goetten (Jürgen Prochnow), a suspected terrorist under surveillance by undercover agents. The two spend the night together, but by the next morning, Goetten is gone and the German police arrest Blum, accusing her of being Goetten’s accomplice. She’s interrogated, kept in a cell, and exploited by the generically titled The Paper. Within days, Blum’s life is turned upside down. Friends abandon her, neighbors harass her, and the little support she receives from her aunt and her employer crumbles under a continual “legal” and media onslaught.
Despite her quiet resolve, Blum is no match for the state. The police read her mail, examine her reading and spending habits, record her phone conversations, keep constant surveillance on Goetten and anyone he contacts. They conjure fantasies with mathematical precision, reinterpreting Blum’s actions as conspiratorial: she could not simply meet a stranger and sleep with him, but must have known him beforehand; all those miles on her odometer must mean she participated in terrorist meetings.
The irony is that these tactics are themselves a form of terrorism. The same is true of exploitative media, embodied in the irrepressibly pompous, sensationalist reporter Werner Toetges (Dieter Laser). He questions Blum’s neighbors about her sex life and interviews her ex-husband about their separation.
In daily articles, The Paper accuses Blum of being radical and irreligious, and fabricates statements from her employer about Blum’s predilection for crime. It even accuses her late father of being a Communist (a charge that resonates in a right-wing press, given that most of the terrorist groups in 1970s Germany were avowedly left-wing). In other words, the media convict Blum before the state does, their motivation as corrupt as their practice; after Toetges puts words in the mouth of Blum’s dying mother, he remarks, “We must help simple people express themselves.”
Despite heavy-handed symbolism (particularly concerning The Paper and Blum’s mother), the film’s effective indictment of the media is the crux of its polemic. The Paper justifies its actions with the claim that “the duty of the press is to inform the public.” To this end, it charges Blum with “crimes” against a bourgeois sensibility, castigating her supposed promiscuity while Toetges brags of his sexual prowess, and preventing Alois Straubleder (Karl Heinz Vosgerau), Blum’s former lover, from coming to her defense for fear of ruining his own reputation.
Tellingly, the film’s attack on bourgeois morality is itself a form of bourgeois morality. In this complex, evocative portrayal of a woman struggling to make sense of an assault against her, Blum expresses her feelings only sporadically; more often she stares, apparently blankly, into space. She’s internalizing her profound, increasing alienation, and, in the moments when she lashes out, she is not exhibiting weakness, but, instead, understandable and complicated responses to the destruction of individual identity.
This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Blum is a threat to no one. All the resources assembled against her are completely out of proportion to their target, evidenced early in the film when Blum, alone in her apartment, prepares breakfast as a massive array of men and armor descend on her doorway. Contrasting Blum’s innocence with the state’s authority, the scene is darkly humorous but also horrifying.
As an Orwellian commentary on the abuse of power and information, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is terrifying. Its impact is made all the more effective by Schlöndorff and von Trotta’s assured direction, as they pace the narrative evenly and tightly, and manage being polemical without being manipulative. Their achievement is given all the richness it deserves on Criterion’s transfer, supervised by cinematographer Jost Vacano (the DVD also includes an interview with the directors and excerpts from a 1977 documentary on Heinrich Böll). Criterion makes available here an exemplary work of the New German Cinema, a reminder that, even in democracies, an individual’s identity and rights are only as inalienable as the state and the media allow them to be.