The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum) centers on the titular Katharina (Angela Winkler), a rather ordinary young woman working as a housekeeper in Cologne, Germany, who finds herself in rather extraordinary circumstances after she spends the night with a young man who is wanted by the police in connection with a bank robbery and supposed leftwing terroristic activity. And just like that, Katharina’s mundane life is thrust into the public spotlight as she is arrested and interrogated and accused, her life turned upside down and inside out. And, while the police are certainly rough in their handling of her (their desperation under public pressure to crack down on terrorism overrides the angels of their better nature), the real villain is the press, specifically the fictional tabloid The Paper, which distorts, misleads, and outright lies about Katharina in its quest to generate the most sensationalistic news stories possible day after day. Humanity and truth mean nothing in the face of a great headline.
Thus, the continued relevance of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum should already be apparent. Even though the film was made in the analogue era of the 1970s, when newspapers were still on paper and no one had digital screens in their pockets, it still strikes directly at the crucial crossroads between capital-T “Truth” and the narratives spun by the press, which are driven (in the best case scenario) by a desire to convey that truth to their readers, but also (in the worst case scenario) by pride, greed, and competition. There have been many films that have extolled the virtuousness of the free press (especially in the United States), presenting dogged journalists as a crucial pillar holding up the shaky foundations of democracy against corruption and political malfeasance—we can think here of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), or Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017)—and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is their inverse. A scathing critique of journalistic ethics driven into the mud of sensationalism, it has nothing but contempt for the intersection of media and government, which conspire in various ways to destroy the life of Katharina—an everywoman stand-in who could be any one of us—for their own benefit.
The film was adapted from a 1974 novel of the same name by the celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning German author Heinrich Böll, who wrote it as a thinly veiled piece of cathartic criticism emanating from his own brutalizing experience with the press and the government following his defense of the Baader-Meinhof gang (aka the RAF), a Leftist terrorist organization that came to prominence in the early 1970s with several high-profile acts of violence (including bombings and bank robberies) that were ostensibly in protest of the Vietnam War and what they saw as the West German police state. Specifically, Böll published a scathing article criticizing the treatment of the RAF in Bild-Zeitung, a leading tabloid newspaper that was the clear model for The Paper in Katharina Blum (he opens the novel with the following passage: “The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable”). He labeled the tabloid “fascist” and described its language as “verhetzung, lüge, dreck” (“incitement, lies, garbage”). Springer Press, the publisher of Bild-Zeitung, struck back immediately by defaming him in the paper, and he received threatening phone calls and was raided by the police. Thus, Katharina’s treatment by The Paper and the police are clearly reflective of Böll’s own experiences, which lend something more insightful and cutting to what could have been outright caricature in the film.
Angela Winkler plays Katharina as a simple woman of no particularly strong political persuasion. She is dangerously close to being boring, and we don’t know much about her before her ordeal begins. It is clear that she is genuinely in love with Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow), the handsome young criminal she meets at a party and brings back to her apartment, which feels a bit too much like narrative convenience. Described by her friends as a “nun” due to her conservative ways, Katharina nevertheless falls hard and fast for Ludwig, which doesn’t entirely comport with her otherwise low-key approach to life. She is also hampered with the weight of being the film’s voice of reason and conscience; in effect, the film takes the moral strength often given to the press in such films and invests it entirely in Katharina, which means that the press, as embodied by The Paper, is a completely unredeemable affront to decent humanity. The reporter, Werner Tötges (Dieter Laser), and the photographer assigned to Katharina’s story have no scruples and no morals, and they gleefully intrude on the lives of Katharina’s employers and even her deathly ill mother, whose hospital room they invade to try to get a juicy quote. The police are all too willing to play along since it gets them what they want, which is someone to blame and incarcerate, thus demonstrating their commitment to strong and swift actions against terrorism and crime—issues that are all too pertinent today.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum was co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. Schlöndorff was already a leading light of the New German Cinema, having worked in France as an assistant director for Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed several well-received films in Germany, including Young Törless (1966), one of the defining films of the New German Cinema. Von Trotta was known primarily as an actress, and Katharina Blum marked her first foray behind the camera, although it would hardly be her last, as she went on to develop a significant career as a director in her own right. Working together, they give Katharina Blum a strong, compelling trajectory, one that hinges heavily on our sympathy for Katharina and our rising indignation at her treatment by the press and the police. It is certainly a film of broad strokes with little ambiguity, and Katharina ultimately doesn’t make for the most compelling protagonist. She exists largely to be acted upon until the final reel when she takes matters into her own hands in a striking way that Böll made clear at the beginning of his novel, but Schlöndorff and von Trotta withhold until the moment arrives. It doesn’t entirely work because it feels to pat, too neat, too obviously cathartic, but it makes sense within the film’s emotional and political logic. Whatever its flaws, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a film that, unfortunately, still speaks clearly to the world today.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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