The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum – A Relentless Portrayal on the Hypocrisy of Tabloid Press

                                          In the early 1970’s, a wave of anarchist or terrorist acts in the democratic West Germany by leftist radical group Red Army Faction (RAF, also famously called as ‘Baader-Meinhof Gang’) baffled the nation’s authorities. The radical RAF characterized West Germany as a fascist holdover of Hitler’s Nazi era and condemned the action of US at the height of cold war. To spite the US installations & government of West Germany and in order to support themselves, the RAF was involved in string of bank robberies and kidnapping of industrialists. It later engaged in bombings of West German corporations. Under pressure, the government fiercely responded by passing strict laws and giving immense powers to police, who went onto abuse civil rights and the country’s democratic values.

                                     The media joined hands with the police force and transmuted into yellow press by smearing any individual, who was just accused of association with the radical gang. The press radicalized anyone (calling them a Marxist to commie) who had guts to talk against the government policies. These smearing campaigns obviously bothered West German’s politically neutral intellectuals, writers, artists, and general public. In 1971, when a bank was robbed, the papers next day blamed the RAF gang without having any evidence.  Nobel winning novelist Heinrich Boll condemned this manner of journalism; he immediately became the target of a besmirching campaign. He received profane anonymous phone calls, hate mails, and was accused of sympathizing with the terrorists. This experience made Boll to write a dramatic best-seller “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (1975)

                                   German director Volker Schlondorff and his actress-wife Margarethe Von Trotta simultaneously made the novel into a feature film. The libertarian Boll’s protagonist isn’t, however an old professor, but a young & beautiful waitress, who doesn’t have a clue about the political intricacies of the Cold War era. The self-explanatory title by Boll accuses that sometime police & press instigate violence or radicalize the naive person. Poor Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) hasn’t done anything wrong except falling in love at first sight for Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow). Katharina is a shy, proud and seems to be an honorable girl, since her friends have nicknamed her as ‘nun’. She doesn’t have much of a family life as her mother is very sick and a brother is in prison. Katharina is divorced and living alone for nearly six years, although she has had a ‘gentleman friend’.

                                   Katharina meets Ludwig in some party. She reacts as if she has found a soul-mate and they end up in her apartment, make love, and in the morning he leaves. After a bath, Katharina is having her breakfast as the police force clamorously enters her apartment and searches for Ludwig. The affectionate Ludwig is whom the police suspect of bank robbery & terrorist acts. He was constantly under surveillance and so the police don’t believe that Ludwig has just escaped without the help of Katharina. She is immediately taken for interrogation and special agent Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) states that this isn’t a random encounter. He is convinced that she is involved with the terrorist gang and believes she has provided shelter for other anarchists.

                                    In the mean time, an ambitious & sleazy reporter, Werner Toetges (Dieter Laser) with the blessings of Beizmenne starts a defaming campaign against Katharina. He visits Katharina’s home town and contrives that there are clues here about her terrorist’s past. The next day newspapers paint Katharina like a fiery girl working for the Communist cause. She receives pornographic images through mail, anonymous phone calls, and even her friends look with a doubtful eye. Every little mystery in Katharina’s life is dug up, while the papers throw more & more dirt on her.

                                    The immediacy of relevance to a particular period in post-World War II Germany makes this film an interesting historical viewpoint. If you don’t care about the political machinations of West Germany, the film’s main theme on ‘freedom of press’ and ‘civil rights abuse’ has wider relevance today, than it might have had four decades back. Over fear of terrorism, many nations are ready to invade their citizen’s private lives, undermining the democratic values. On the other hand, in the name of ‘freedom of press’, media harasses innocent individuals. The way they misrepresent to get an eye candy headline and the manner they pass judgement on the accused is something that’s we can see daily on the 24*7 channels. When both these fearful forces join together a destructive paranoia engulfs the ordinary citizen, which eventually might give rise to more anarchists & terrorists. Director Volkor Schondorff’s camera never holds back in showcasing the shame & abuse, perpetrated on Katharina.

                                     In a film’s most shocking moment, the journalist interviews Katharina’s sick, unconscious mother trying to get a word. He later writes his own words as the mother’s, which makes it to the headlines. In another scene, when Katharina is escorted from her apartment, the press gang photographs her.  The police at the back jerk and pull her hair, to force her to make a contorted face. The pictures taken in that manner makes her look like a desperate criminal and is plastered all over the paper. However, what spoils the film is an overly critical tone that shows everything in black-and-white. Although the director due don’t make any preachy statements, they do omit issues that doesn’t conveniently suit their purpose. Despite the truthfulness in its question, the story seems to be stretched out to include more satirical notes.

                                   The characters of media people and police authorities come off as caricatures. German veteran Mario Adorf and Dieter Laser performed their roles to perfection, extracting enough hate from the viewers. But, in the end all of the lawmen are painted as arrogant beings, believing that they are beyond reproach. I don’t know how the press really behaved in that era in Germany, but the single-minded intensity of Toetges looks heavy-handed. Nevertheless, Angela Winkler’s fine-tuned performance as Katharina nails the absurdity of the political status quo. The lingering closeup shots capture her emotional collapse with precision, but still Winkler imbues an air of mystery into the character, making it more complex than what it could be. She is the only three-dimensional character in the film, who expresses outrage, tenderness, concern, and courage, and Blum remains adequate in going through these emotions.

                                  “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (105 minutes) depicts the worst, despicable side of democracy’s two powerful institutions – Police and Media. It shows how brutal laws and impregnable power instigate more anarchism in the devastated society. 


Mad Max: Fury Road – A Vividly Captured Energizing Mayhem

                                            Australian film-maker George Miller’s name was often mentioned with his contemporaries like Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, and Bruce Beresford for taking Australian films to international audiences (the critics called “Australian New Wave” film-makers). Although, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), “My Brilliant Career” (1976) or “Breaker Morant” (1980) gained numerous awards & acclaim in the international film festival circuits, it was Miller’s “Mad Max” (1979), which got affiliated to global main-stream audiences. The relentless post-apocalyptic setting, the bizarre cars & maniacal gangs, lone gunslinger protagonist, and the sweeping action made “Mad Max” a pop cult craze in the early 1980’s. But, like George Romero, Miller too didn’t go beyond the ‘Max’ movies to carve an exciting career with great outputs. Although, he enjoyed directorial success with movies like “Babe: Pig in the City”, “Happy Feet”, his grand vision seems to have burnt out with those cult action flicks.

                                        It didn’t seem like exciting news, when I heard Miller was re-booting “Mad Max” (despite the fact that the trailer was stirring enough) for the contemporary generation, since we know how must of the re-boots messes up the original setting. But, the septuagenarian Aussie has comeback strongly with an exalted vision and undiminished fervor. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) is the kind of action epic that sets new benchmark for high-octane mayhem stunts.   Of course, the vehicles here are more complex than the characters and the storyline, but this boiled-down-to-essentials approach wonderful works here. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former cop and post-apocalyptic road warrior, in a voice-over, states how the civilizations collapsed into a hellish landscape, ruled by raging crazies. He describes himself as ‘a man who runs from both living and the dead’ before eating a live two-headed lizard.

                                        Max is often haunted by his dead child, whom he failed to save. His much cherished vehicle is pursued by a group of bald berserkers. He is taken as a prisoner into the citadel, which is ruled by a disfigured dictator ‘Immortan Joe’ (Hugh Keays-Bryne). Apart from gasoline and water, blood is also a precious commodity for the ruler of ‘citadel’. Blood is the primary source for Immortan’s albumen-colored, diseased young male soldiers called as ‘War Boys’. Max becomes a ‘blood bag’ as he is literally connected to the eccentric war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed warrior woman & one of Immortan Joe’s trusted operative, takes the treasured 18-wheeler War Rig for a routine gas run to neighboring, rival towns.

                                       But, Furiosa takes a different path – a path to redemption – and accompanied with her are five of Immortan Joe’s very precious things – beautiful & healthy young slave wives of the tyrant. The girls called as ‘breeders’ are kept alive for the sole pleasure of Joe to remake human race in his own image. Max, the blood bag, is unwittingly thrown into the pursuit for Furiosa. Max, who doesn’t care about anything other than his survival, takes sides with Furiosa and helps the women to reach their destination as the ‘War Rig’ was chased by weirdly & innovatively designed monster-trucks.

                                        The film starts with Max facing away from the camera, looking at the apocalyptic wasteland, and like this opening image, Max most of the times stays in the background, providing center stage for Theron’s Furiosa. He literally and figuratively kept aside of the driver seat. He isn’t portrayed as the usual gunslinger, who guides these damsels in distress. In fact, Furiosa seems to be better marksmen (woman) than Max. Tom Hardy plays Max in a low-key manner, echoing his subliminal performance in the recent “Locke” – a different kind of vehicle-bound thriller. Hardy’s Max is far darker in tone than Gibson’s partly playful one. If you feel that Hardy lacks the kickassness that defines the gunslinger archetype, then there’s no worry because that aspect is filled in by Charlize Theron. Furiosa seems to have the looks & guts of Weaver’s Ripley (“Alien” franchise) & Renee Jeanne Falconetti (“Passion of Joan of Arc”). Although Furiosa is an elemental character in an explosive action film, Theron brings impressive gravity to the character to make the proceedings engaging enough.

                                        The great part of “Fury Road” is the Gothic & begrimed imagery. The painstaking details conjured by the production designer – from intricately designed tattoos to spikes on the wheels to the skull motifs – everything is a joy to behold. Apart from the unbelievable vehicle designs & stunts, impregnable advantage of this movie is that we could clearly the action going on screen. It is something which we couldn’t say for “Transfomers” franchise or for even some movies in the “Marvel” or “X-Men” franchise. Miller has seamless integrated practical stunt works with the CGI, which makes the stunts visible and also gives enough space for audience to heave a sigh. Despite the grim setting, Miller does provide some comic relief with the character of Nux. Hoult plays Nux to perfection especially when he exuberantly says “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day”. The thee-way fight between chained Nux & Max and Furiosa reminds as of a perfectly orchestrated slap-stick comedy.

                                    Miller’s feminist perspective message doesn’t seem to be thrown as an afterthought – as the new cool thing to have. The traces of healthy culture like books or music (piano) could only be seen in this wasteland inside the wives’ chamber (where there’s also protest slogan “We’re Not Things”). Even Max, who sort of comes across like a chauvinistic hunk, eventually surrenders to a female sentinel.  The final pileup of metals & bodies in the canyon comes across like the eradication of self-centered male ego. Of course, nothing is subtle here, similar to that flamboyant war drummers & red-dressed electronic guitarist. But, isn’t it ridiculous to expect subtle messages (even messages) in a loud-action movie.   

                                  “Mad Max: Fury Road” (120 minutes) is a delirious, incredible, eye-boggling crowd-pleaser. It is more entertaining than the recent installments of “Fast & Furious” and “Avengers” franchise. 


White God – An Allegorical Revenge Fantasy

                                                   Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo is said to have visited a dog shelter, after the rumors about a piece of legislation, which would tax owners of dogs with mixed races more than those of pure breeds. The legislation, of course, was scorned and dropped at early stages, but the discussion and the ensued visit to dog pound, inspired director Mundruczo to make “White God” (2014), a sociopolitical allegory on canine madness. The movie brought the Hungarian film-maker to spotlight as he won ‘Un Certain Regard’ Prize at Cannes Festival , who for years have been working on small-scale dramas that ponders over the human experience.

                                               Kornel Mundruczo dedicated his film to the late maverick Hungarian director Miklos Jancso. Jancso (“The Round-Up, The Red and the White”), who was known for conjuring, critically acclaimed parables of oppression & war, might have loved this mixed-genre allegory, although “White God” doesn’t possess the uniqueness his work had. The story of the film is something you might have already heard or read: the emotional connection between a young girl and her pet. Comedy dramas like “Lassie” and adventurous thrillers like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, and numerous Disney fables contemplated on such relationships. Unfurling a part of the narrative from dog’s point of view is also not something new, as we had seen it in plenty of schmaltzy, talking pets’ movies (both live-action & animation). Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog” and Hitchcock’s “The Birds” were also elusive allegories that used transformation of genial creatures to convey a sociopolitical message.

                                            So, “White God” doesn’t score much on originality, but as a cinematic experience, the film offers a lot. The technical accomplishment of featuring 274 dogs, without the use of CGI is impressive and pair of canine protagonists consistently emotes as well as their human counterparts.  The movie starts with a prologue of sorts, where a young girl on a bike journeys through deserted streets of Budapest, only to be chased by hundreds of feral dogs. The 13 year old girl’s name is Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her best friend is a mutt named ‘Hagen’. Lili’s mother is about to attend a conference in Australia for three months, and so, Lili and Hagen are dropped off in the care of estranged, authoritarian father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter). Lili’s father is a sour-faced former academician, who is now working as a meat inspector.

                                         Lili’s dad, Daniel hates Hagen and refuses to pay heavy tax that has been levied against mixed dogs. Fearing that her father might send Hagen to a dog pound, she takes it to her music school (where she plays the trumpet) and even tries to run away. Before long, Daniel finds Lili and she is forced to tearfully bid farewell to Hagen, who is abandoned on the motorway. Later, Lili is determined to track-down her pet friend, while Hagen roams around the city with his homeless friends to find food. Hagen comes across various types of human abusers, who all give him a scary aggressive persona. His natural & gentle instincts are dried out, when he is trained by a lowlife to become a fighting dog. But, too much discrimination pushes Hagen to start a canine revolution, seeking the blood of their abusers.

                                    Considering the recent surging oppression of impoverished immigrants and homeless people in the European countries, the dogs in the film definitely seems like a stand-in for those discriminated human bunch. The economic inequality, however, could be seen beyond the European or Hungarian context. Even if the dog metaphor and its related social commentary don’t enamor you, the astounding orchestration of the dogs, without the glossy CGI fakery, will surely lend an engaging experience.  More than 250 dogs from Hungarian shelters were coached by a team, overseen by America trainer Teresa Miller. Director Mundruzo has created an interesting camera framework as he (and DP Marcell Rev) has built specific rigs to view the world from dog’s eye perspective. The decision to not employ the use of CG made the film crew to shoot nearly 200 hours of footage with the dogs. So, the editor must have had a grueling time to craft the performances of the canines in order to bring it on screen.  

                                       Nevertheless, animal-lovers would definitely flinch at the simulated violent sequences of dog fights. Many of the violent & ferocious moments make you ask, ‘how they trained the dogs to do that?’ The sequences where the vicious gambler trains Hagen is almost unbearable to watch. He whips & drugs Hagen to push it into a state of perpetual paranoid aggression. The clever camera angles & editing in these scenes conveys the animal’s pain without elaborately depicting the beatings.  Director Mundruczo also adds subtle satirical notes, especially in the scene, where the students’ orchestra performance, watched by bourgeois populace, is interrupted by dogs glaring down from the box seats of the concert hall. If there is a flaw in “White God” it is in the way it walks through different genres – from social realism to melodrama to horror – without getting the right tonal changes. However, the ambiguous ending appeared to be perfect: it could be a message of despair or hope (whichever way you want to take it).

                                  White God” (117 minutes) is a cautionary parable with an overly familiar plot and core message. But, its technical achievement and a culturally specific narrative engage us throughout.