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. 



Ravi said...

This film is in my folder for last 3 years, but haven't seen it yet.

Vishal Kataria said...

Very well described, Arun... Am worried we might be headed in the same direction in the coming few decades...