Eye Candy takes a look at Volker Schlöndorff & Margarethe von Trotta’s film, screening at Liverpool Small Cinema on Jan 26th.
When an innocent woman spends the night with an alleged terrorist, her quiet, ordered life is ruined by an invasive tabloid reporter and a vindictive police investigation. Katharina is subject to a vicious smear campaign, testing the limits of her dignity and her sanity. The film shows the dangers of using a war on terrorism as an excuse to disregard basic human rights, the rule of law and honest press reporting and to cloak any crime as an act of terror in a society ruled by fear.
Katharina is a young woman with little money who works as a housekeeper. One night she sleeps with a man who is under surveillance. In the morning, the police burst into her flat, looking for Ludwig, but he is no longer there. The girl is arrested for aiding a terrorist, even though she had just met him, and taken to the police station for interrogation as his accomplice. She is unable to prove that she had no knowledge of his activities.
The experience is degrading, but in some sense, she understands that it’s necessary: the police are just doing their job. What she can’t stand is the treatment of her case in the popular press. Her life is turned into a media spectacle and torn apart by a press that only reports ‘facts’ which support its particular ideology, even if the details must be fabricated. Her picture’s on the front pages day after day, along with lurid (and mostly imaginary) accounts of her sex life, her politics, her morals. It’s clear that the media don’t care if she’s really innocent or not. She’s a story, and that’s her only purpose to them. The film shows in detail how the situation impacts many people, including Katharina’s employers, neighbors, family members. Her reputation is run through the gutter by the men who translate her private life to the public world, as she tries her best to make her voice heard and the truth known.
She was a quiet, pretty, perhaps even dull young woman; now she’s notorious, and hated by strangers. The public judges her based on both the fabricated evidence presented by her accusers (both press and government) as well as their own assumptions about how a woman should behave. In the society that surrounds Katharina, the state functions through conformity, and those who do not conform instantly become the enemy. As a woman, Katarina bears the brunt of this brutality, as her sexuality becomes both exploited and demonized. The young maid becomes a media fixation, a beautiful sexual terrorist. Simply because Katharina will not give up her dignity and privacy, she becomes an enemy of the state.
The film is based on a book by Nobel-winning novelist, Heinrich Böll and is set in the turbulent West Germany of the 1970s, a time when assassinations by militant groups such as the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof Group) led the government to introduce more and more repressive reforms. Terrorism was confused with radicalism – civil rights were curtailed, and radical citizens were excluded from certain professions. Journalists were ruthless in their digging to come up with a story, as reflected in the film. Police were not afraid to become violent. Witnesses and suspects seldom had a voice. Böll lays bare how the West German police connived with the media to run roughshod over the rights and reputations of individuals in the name of fighting extremism. For someone like Böll, only too aware of his country’s recent Nazi past, where the press was nothing more than a propaganda tool for the State and the police were a law unto themselves, the dangers were only too apparent. In his story, Böll attempts to show how damaging irresponsible journalism can be to the lives and reputations of innocent persons caught up in the tide of current events.
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is anchored by Angela Winkler’s extraordinarily intelligent, Joan of Arc-like performance as Katharina. As eloquent in silence as in speech, she portrays Katharina as a woman of unusually strong convictions who values her right to make her own decisions about her life and, most particularly, about her sexuality. The men she encounters react to her sense of self-worth as a challenge to their masculinity. When she refuses to play their game, they become enraged and intent on destroying her. The one thing that can be counted on to unite the various men in this film across class and political lines is the need to keep women in a subservient position. In the eyes of the law, Katharina is guilty, first and foremost, of the crime of being a woman. That she’s a woman who refuses to allow the patriarchy to determine her value compounds her guilt.
The film is was the only co-directing venture between husband-and-wife team Schlöndorff and von Trotta. Schlöndorff was an established director who began his film career in the early ’60s as an assistant director for such French New Wave directors as Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville. Von Trotta had been a stage and screen actor for a decade, but had never directed before. She brings to Katharina Blum a feminist and psychological perspective that complements Schlöndorff’s Brechtian-styled political critique. Their position—that the resurgence of a reactionary law-and-order mentality in the face of homegrown terrorists was a greater threat to Germany’s fledgling democracy than the terrorists themselves—struck a nerve, and the film became the first commercial success of the New German Cinema. Schlöndorff would go on to direct the Academy Award-winning The Tin Drum (1979) and many more features. Von Trotta followed Katharina Blum with four radically feminist films: The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1977), Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness (1979), The German Sisters (1981), and Rosa Luxemburg (1985). By the early 1980s, she was acknowledged as the most important female director in Europe.
With the recent hacking scandal, the demise of the News of the World, police allegedly being paid off by newspapers and the raft of new laws thanks to the war on terror, it would seem that The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum hasn’t lost any of its relevance 40 years after it was made. Its most disturbing aspect is its portrayal of the collusion between the police and the right-wing press in demonizing not only terrorist suspects but also anyone who questions the counter-terrorism policies of the government. The film shows the dangers of using a war on terrorism as an excuse to disregard basic human rights, the rule of law and honest press reporting.
The film is a stinging commentary on state power, individual freedom, and media manipulation – as relevant today as on the day of its release in 1975. In its mapping of tensions between the individual and a paranoid society, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is an utterly contemporary film.