Thursday, July 21, 2011

THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (Die verlorene Ehre der..., 1975)

Timely viewing during the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal is this adaptation of a Heinrich Boll novel by the husband-wife team of Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe Von Trotta. Boll was a Nobel-winning novelist who found himself villified in West Germany's right wing "Springer press" for his defense of due process for members of the Red Army Faction/"Baader Meinhof Gang." Katharina Blum was his counterblast, a fictionalized expose of collaboration between news media and police. The title character (Angela Winkler) is transformed by unscrupulous reporters for "The Paper" (Die Zeitung, a barely-veiled version of the Springer tabloid Bild-Zeitung) after enjoying a one-night stand with a suspected anarchist gang member. Had sleazemonger Werner Toetges (Dieter Laser) had the technology, we can imagine he'd do exactly what News of the World did. With his limited means, he finds every way possible to violate Katharina's privacy, twisting the words of an old boyfriend into a denunciation and sneaking into the hospice where Katharina's mother lies dying. Katharina has already been humiliated by the police, led by the bullying Beizmenne (a diabolic Mario Adorf of Milano Calibro 9 fame), forced to strip at gunpoint in front of strangers in her own apartment and dumped into a cell with a vomit-stained toilet. Her employers, a wealthy lawyer's family for whom she does housekeeping, stand up for her, but few others do. With her angry snapshot plastered on Die Zeitung's front pages on a nearly daily pages, Blum is soon subject to insult and threats from strangers on the street and in the mail. The state has nothing on her, but they eventually get their man. With no apologies forthcoming, Katharina finally resolves to restore her honor the old fashioned way....

Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler, above) loses her honor -- in a more manly sense of the word -- to investigator Beizmenne (Mario Adorf, below left) and reporter Toetges (Dieter Laser, right).

Lost Honor is outright agitprop on a nearly epic scale. It's a clear tale of victims and villains, with nearly no nuance in the portrayals of the cops and the reporters. There's no disputing within the film that the Springer press or its fictional surrogate is an enemy of the people, and the point is driven home in a final funeral scene when Die Zeitung's publisher rants Hitler-like that an attack on his newspaper is an attack on all Germans. Out of context, that's an admirable sentiment on behalf of freedom of the press. In context, the publisher may as well be saying L'etat, c'est moi! As far as Boll and his adaptors are concerned, freedom of the press is no excuse for abuse of power.

Lacking in subtlety, Die verlorene Ehre is best taken as an artifact of its time, with a good helping of documentary matter like the Boll documentary included on the Criterion Collection DVD. It gives you a strong sense of the troubled times in West Germany and the state-of-siege climate in which the story grew from novel to film. Don't pick this one if you want a nuanced portrait of the era. Schlondorff and Von Trotta were out to make people angry, and on that level, and given the tale's fresh relevance, it's a two-fisted success.

No comments: