By Jeremy Carr.
Even if it’s not a true story, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum – both Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novel and the 1975 film adaptation written and directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta – can only be, according to Schlöndorff, “understood out of the period.” This is true enough, as the context of this gripping tale concerning one woman’s unintentional plunge into the sociopolitical upheaval of the era is undeniably vital to a complete appreciation of the film’s insight and its perceptive commentary. At the time of Katharina Blum’s production, West Germany was embroiled in a relentless torrent of cultural challenges, involving student activists, corrupt politicians, an unscrupulous media, militant terrorist organizations, and, often entangled and lost in the manifold conflict, average German citizens – the central emphasis of this fictional story. That emphasis also overlapped with reality, though, as the Nobel Prize-winning Böll, who condemned the collusion between tabloid journalists and unethical police officials, faced indictments of his own character as a result, as did Schlöndorff and von Trotta upon the film’s release.
That’s one component of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum’s context. Another is its place as a work of New German Cinema. As a pronounced movement, New German Cinema was essentially launched with the 1962 publication of the Oberhausen Manifesto, a proclamation, as stated by Amy Taubin in her essay on Katharina Blum for the Criterion Collection, “made by a loose confederation of filmmakers and actors declaring their break from mainstream film production and distribution and also renouncing … the classical forms of European art cinema – the ‘tradition of quality’ – in both form and content.” Independent in spirit, sometimes radical in design, and almost always provocative in subject matter, these films were realized by an eclectic assembly of auteurs, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and others. Often considered among the movement’s more commercial titles, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum aligns with many of the incisive features produced by these filmmakers, yet it progresses with a more palatable execution.
This leads to a third aspect of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which likewise fixes the film to its time and partly explains why it was received as a relatively marketable venture. Schlöndorff and von Trotta created a film that fits nicely as an entry into the paranoid thriller subgenre so prevalent in the 1970s, especially in America (see The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, etc.). Indeed, almost immediately Katharina Blum corresponds with these features by way of Hans Werner Henze’s unnerving score, Jost Vacano’s muted cinematography, and a narrative teeming with rampant suspicion. As the film begins, covert camera footage records the enigmatic path of Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow), at first nameless and with unstated motives, as he makes his way to a party where he encounters housekeeper Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler). The presentation of his interactions, as well as that of those charting his behavior, engenders an impression of proximate menace, a looming unease that undercuts the surface revelry of the social gathering. There is something unsettling about Ludwig’s activities, encouraged by the fact he is being watched and consequently manipulating the assessment of his exchanges with Katharina; his behavior is obviously in question, but what of hers?
When brutal police forces raid Katharina’s Cologne apartment the next morning, knowing Ludwig had spent the night there, it’s clear the unsuspecting young woman has been consumed by far more than she bargained for. It’s a drastic offensive, humiliating in its cold dominance, and Katharina is swiftly imbedded in a terrifying whirlwind of terroristic suggestion. Presuming an alliance with Ludwig, a suspected radical, the police subject Katherina to a pitiless interrogation, twisting her words, distorting the facts, and applying their rigid accusations and forgone conclusions. Schlöndorff and von Trotta efficiently establish a vast and intricate system of unyielding inquiry, presented with a detached, sometimes shocking bluntness. The viewer is thus positioned as an objective, powerless bystander, swept up in the intensity of the pace and intrigued by the elliptical orientation of Katharina’s backstory and her prior associates.
Chief among those responsible for the invasive inquisition are police inspector Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) and Tötges (Dieter Laser), a newspaper reporter. While the former is treated as a customarily overzealous officer of the law, grandstanding and pompous and perfectly played by a devious and haughty Adorf, Laser’s callous reporter proves even more cunning and formidable. “The journalist,” states von Trotta in an interview on the Criterion disc, “becomes the devil,” which places Katharina as the symbolic good fighting against a representative evil. Von Trotta’s dueling assertion is certainly justified given the merciless lengths Tötges goes to fabricate a good story, sure to sell copies no matter its validity. He visits Katherina’s ailing mother, tormenting the frail woman and shamefully putting words in her mouth, and basically does the same with Katherina’s ex-husband and one of her primary acquaintances. The piecemeal unraveling of Katherina’s life is as fascinating for its velocity as it is disturbing for its ease.
Schlöndorff, who had worked as an assistant for Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, and Jean-Luc Godard, “quickly made his mark,” as Taubin puts it, with Young Törless (1966). From there, he tended to focus on literary adaptations and television movies, marrying von Trotta in 1971 and going on to cowrite several films in which she also performed, most notably A Free Woman (1972), which Taubin considers “something of a prologue to Katharina Blum in depicting the difficulty of female independence in West Germany.” Taubin writes that Katharina Blum “jump-started” von Trotta’s career, “which has focused largely on narratives about women, fictional and biographical.” For Taubin, then, the strength of Katharina Blum “has a great deal to do with the successful merging of the two filmmakers’ passionate concerns: his with the complexity of translating literary works into cinema, hers with the representation of women’s political and psychological struggles against patriarchy.”
An essential concentration of Katharina Blum’s account does align more with von Trotta’s motivations, though, particularly as it relates to what Katharina suffers as a result of being a woman. The complete dismantling of her livelihood is accomplished via a variety of mechanisms, from insistent questions about her finances to a proliferation of charges based on her contacts, however innocuous they may be. But the underlying harassment she endures, at least in terms of its enactment, stems principally from views regarding her gender. Crude comments and unduly intimate queries are among the more overt instances of a sexiest bearing, and as Taubin writes, “although it is not an exaggeration to claim that Katharina is prosecuted for the crime of being a woman, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a feminist film only in the negative – in the way it depicts the impediments to a feminist politics.” This extends to the depiction of the women generally kept in the shadows of the investigation and those, especially Katharina’s associates, who are also subject to intimidation or are simply ignored. In light of von Trotta’s subsequent work, Taubin rightly observes in Katharina Blum “the embryonic desire for women’s empowerment bubbling up in scene after scene.”
Attempting to assure her that some degree of noble morality remains intact, despite all she has seen, a lower ranking officer tells Katharina “not everyone works for the police.” But that morality grows increasingly murky throughout the picture, for all involved and all the way up to the film’s vengeful conclusion. For Katherina, who is called “politically naïve” by Tötges and is mocked for her “proper” demeanor (“You’re such a nun,” states her more rebellious cousin), her elusive confessions circulate with her frightened defiance and her peculiarly dignified reserve; perhaps signifying secrets, perhaps simply a testament to the will of her being. In either case, as both a political pawn and a young woman engaged in an unexpectedly poignant, if tremendously complicated, love story, Katharina is left with, per Schlöndorff, “nothing but her honor.”
The closing disclaimer of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, based on a statement in Böll’s novel, reads, “All characters and events are fictitious. The descriptions of certain journalistic practices are neither intentional nor accidental but unavoidable.” That renunciation may reflect an attitude ascribed to a particular setting at a particular moment in time, but as Taubin notes, it remains dreadfully prophetic. When the film was released, she writes, it was “regarded by some critics as too topical, and by the filmmakers’ more experimental cohorts as too closely wedded to old-fashioned social realism, stylistically, to have any lasting place in film history – a rush to judgment that proved stunningly incorrect.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as she points out: “During the past forty-five years, worldwide government and corporate surveillance has proliferated unchecked.” To this end, while Winkler is a “passive star” according to cinematographer Vacano (also interviewed for Criterion), she ably expresses profound depths of influence as it relates to viewer reception. Her reactions are oftentimes reflective of our own (shock, shame, frustration), which communicates Katharina Blum’s effectiveness as a cautionary tale of sorts, a “wrong man” scenario founded in the fear of unjust authority and the anxiety of becoming an unwitting victim of circumstance.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).