– It’s Neuer Deutscher Film time..!
And I’ll start the filmography of Volker Schlöndorff – one of the important directors of New German Cinema, not with his Oscar-winning Die Blechtrommel (that comes later), but a slightly lesser known, but equally respected classic, “Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum” [Eng. Title: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum]. Based on a novel by Nobel prize-winning author Heinrich Böll, it is a scathing critique of the culture of sensationalism in the gutter-press – as relevant today as it was during the seventies. The film was also co-directed by Schlöndorff’s then wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who will soon go on to become an accomplished director in her own right.
Katharina Blum – a housekeeper, meets Ludwig Götten at a Cologne carnival party, falls in love at first sight, and also brings him home for the night. The following morning, armed police break into her apartment looking for Ludwig, accusing him of being a terrorist (and possible R.A.F member) recently involved in a bank robbery. Not finding him there, they arrest and interrogate Katharina instead. The story is sensationally covered by a tabloid newspaper, and served with lies and half-truths fabricated by Werner Tötges, its overzealous and sleazy reporter. He blatantly intrudes upon Katharina’s privacy by tricking her acquaintances and relatives into revealing more than they need to, and spicing it up with his own prejudiced views and venom-soaked accusations – tarring her reputation, and painting her as a picture of evil who works hand-in-glove with Ludwig, as part of a wider communist conspiracy. He even harasses her ill mother recovering in intensive care, and manipulates her confused words. Katharina’s employer and lawyer, Hubert Blorna and wife Trude will also be ostracised by the press.
Katharina reaches a tipping-point when her mother dies in hospital – possibly as a result of the harassment, and Ludwig is also captured, only to discover that he was merely a army drop-out on the run, with money stolen from his regiment’s pay-packet. She invites reporter Tötges over for an exclusive interview, and shoots him dead after he makes sexual advances. Unlike the novel, the film ends with a hypocritical speech made by the owner of the newspaper at Tötge’s funeral, extolling the sanctity and virtues of ‘freedom of the press’ in a modern democracy.
The Background – Heinrich Böll:
A Nobel laureate and one of the most celebrated modern writers from Germany, Heinrich Böll was a deeply pacifist champion of civil liberties, and a sympathiser and supporter of defectors from eastern block countries. But his criticism of the government’s policies against the militant R.A.F (Red Army Faction) during the early seventies caused an uproar. The novel “Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann” (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead) is based on his own experiences, following his vilification by the tabloid press for writing an article in a magazine, urging the government to initiate a dialogue with the Baader Meinhoff group. He filed a lawsuit against the newspaper when it accused him of being the spiritual ‘father’ of R.A.F, and after having lost the case, poured his angst into creating the novel.
In my view, this is an appropriate time to revisit the film, because the atmosphere in which it was made closely resembles that of the present-day, post-9/11 society, with economic crises, rising xenophobia, and a resurgence in right-wing politics in the west. Communism was the bugbear then, and the tabloid press were competing to come up with the most sensational headlines. Schlöndorff’s intention was to ask his audience to stop, think, and consider in which direction Germany (and the world) was heading – towards greater democracy and strengthening of its civil liberties, or towards an era they’d already been in 30-odd years ago – but none in their right mind, would ever want to revisit.
For all the sensationalism it portrays, the film itself is austerely made. By keeping it ‘real’ – with its neutral lighting, simple but architectural compositions from cinematographer Jost Vacano, and assisted by some fine performances from the actors – notably Angela Winkler as the innocent, vulnerable, almost saintly and dignified Katharina Blum, and Mario Adorf who plays the ruthless investigating officer – Schlöndorff gives the film a documentary-feel to highlight the film’s serious intent. Just as the film’s tone progressively gets darker, so does its claustrophobic atmosphere, exacerbated by a metallic/industrial music score, creating a haunting study of life amidst a ‘collective’ mindset. This classic is without a doubt, Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon.com DVD Link [NTSC]
The excellent-transfer Criterion DVD comes with valuable extras – it includes interviews with directors Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, cinematographer Jost Vacano, and also a mini film biography on novelist Heinrich Böll supported by archive footage. This is my recommended choice of DVD.
The Nudity: Angela Winkler
There is a brief scene of nudity from Angela Winkler (Katharina Blum), forced to change into clothes with the door open while armed police stood watch. There is also a scene of Katharina’s dead mother being cleaned in the morgue – one of the few rare occasions in cinema where an elderly woman is depicted in the nude.