The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum puts viewers in the scuffed shoes of an ordinary person who suddenly finds every detail of her life under the microscope of the full investigative force of the state and a sensation-hungry news media.
The ‘honor’ that the tabloid newspaper-hyped ‘Gangsterbraut’ [gun moll] and ‘Anarchistenbraut’ [anarchist-bride] Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) loses in this powerful 1975 film is her good name and privacy.
The film is based on a 1974 polemic of the same title that Nobel prize winner Heinrich Böll wrote in response similar treatment that he felt he had received from the German government hand-in-glove with the powerful Axel Springer media organization and its flagship tabloid Bild for speaking out on behalf of his young compatriots accused of ‘terrorism’ in 1970s West Germany.
The novel begins—and the film ends—with the following ‘disclaimer’:
‘The characters and events in this narrative are fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices bear any similarity to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional nor accidental, but unavoidable.’*
The novel’s polemic bite comes from its dispassionate, antiseptic style which mimics an official ‘after-action report’ by being everything but that. The film engages us from the start, taking the extra step of putting us in the target’s place.
The narrative strength of the camera helps to make this film compelling. The viewer’s interest is drawn in because the camera engages it subjects the way one engages another in conversation, by really looking at the other. The camera creates depth both by looking into people’s faces and by looking carefully into frames rather than at them.
Here, the camera works like a pencil in drawing: it shapes the story, conveying the feel of a living thing, taking nothing for granted, always on the move, always watching, but never with that jerky, jarring sensation one gets from handheld shooting. A sequence of 16 mm shots in the beginning even has the feel of a person’s calm, steady, curious gaze, providing information without drawing attention to the means or a ‘style’.
The film starts with a young man (Jurgen Prochnow) in a white parka with a duffle bag aboard a river ferry. We see the same man in grainy black and white, nicely centered in the viewfinder of a hand-held 16 mm camera, evidently unaware that the middle-aged ‘tourist’ filming the scenery is a member of a team watching him.
The surveillance team follows this man into Köln. He goes to a discotheque where colorfully dressed and costumed revellers dance and carouse, celebrating Weiberfastnacht [women’s carnival night], the first night of the German Karneval party that goes through the weekend to Mardi Gras. (Köln is the German ‘New Orleans’ for Mardi Gras partiers.) The team shadows a group of people the young man accompanies to a party at a private apartment. At the party, the man introduces himself as Ludwig to Katharina, who had avoided thus far going out.
The violence of this assault is conveyed by the contrast of this ordinary woman taking morning tea at home in a white bathrobe with the masked paramilitary SWAT team that bursts suddenly into her modest, bright, IKEA-furnished apartment, its automatic weapons trained over and under in every direction.
Under the direction of Kriminalkommissar Erwin Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) and Staatsanwalt Dr. Peter Hach (Rolf Becker), the police official and prosecutor heading the investigation of alleged ‘terrorist’ Ludwig Götten (Prochnow), officers comb Blum’s apartment for evidence of her criminal involvement. Authorities haul in the incredulous, naïve woman for questioning.
The upshot is the germanically thorough and excruciating dissection of Blum’s intimate life—a process that it is hard to believe would not be painful and embarrassing to anyone who has lived at least 25 years.
Insult adds to injury when the news media, particularly the tabloid Zeitung [Daily] runs the most embarrassing details and inflammatory allegations in bold headlines—some invented, some leaked by law enforcement to Werner Tötges (Dieter Laser), Zeitung’s intensely arrogant, obnoxious and unrelenting reporter on the story.
At one point, Beizmanne asks Tötges how he got Blum’s terminally ill mother, dying in an intensive care unit, to speak to him so eloquently about her ‘uncaring’ daughter for his story.
‘We must help simple people express themselves,’ Tötges said, with a twinkle in his eye. The operating hypocrisy, in Boll’s view, is that the press asserts that the people’s imputed ‘right to know’ excuses any excess; but those who would challenge excesses such as these would strike at the very heart of democracy and its ‘lifeblood’, a free press.
Blum is truly a naïve nobody, a lonely single woman, housekeeper to a prominent lawyer, Dr. Hubert Blorna (Heinz Bennent) and his wife Trude (Hannelore Hoger). The plot thickens when her personal secrets reveal a liaison higher up the food chain, wholly unrelated to Götten and any criminal activity.
Götten’s criminal activity, such as it is, almost predictably turns out to have a good deal less than any terrorist motivation. The thing that no one can explain in the end is Blum’s willingness to give Tötges an exclusive interview…
A notable feature of this film is its musical score, composed by Hans Werner Henze, which lends the narrative wings, not the usual crutches. Henze’s fine score has classical underpinnings with a 1970s free jazz flavor.
As an aside, veteran actor Heinz Bennent, who played Dr. Blorna and also appeared in films of Ingmar Bergman and others, died earlier this month at age 90.
*‘Personen und Handlung dieser Erzählung sind frei erfunden. Sollten sich bei der Schilderung gewisser journalistischer Praktiken Ähnlichkeiten mit den Praktiken der »Bild«–Zeitung ergeben haben, so sind diese Ähnlichkeiten weder beabsichtigt noch zufällig, sondern unvermeidlich.ʼ