Few political films transcend their historic moment. Yet watching Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum today is an uncanny experience. There is little difference between this depiction of West Germany in 1975, when the anxiety about terrorism eroded basic democratic values, and what we fear is about to happen—may indeed be already happening—in the United States since September 11th, 2001.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is based on the novel of the same name by Heinrich Böll. A Nobel prize-winning author, Böll had written an essay criticizing the Bild-Zeitung (the widely circulated daily tabloid that was the cash cow in the yellow press empire of Axel Springer) for fanning mass hysteria with its coverage of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The paper then branded Böll a terrorist sympathizer, and he and his family were subjected to police harassment, searches, and wiretaps. Böll’s response was to write The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (subtitled “How Violence Can Arise and What It Can Lead To”), about a young woman whose life is destroyed when the police suspect her of harboring a terrorist.
Like-minded political activists Schlöndorff and von Trotta knew Böll, and decided to co-adapt and co-direct the film even before the novel was published. Von Trotta had previously worked with Schlöndorff as a writer and an actor (they were married for many years) but this was to be their only co-directing venture. Schlöndorff, 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, had already directed half a dozen films in Germany prior to making Katharina Blum. Von Trotta had been a stage and screen actor for a decade, but she had never directed before. She brings to Katharina Blum a feminist and psychological perspective that complements Schlöndorff’s Brechtian-styled political critique. Among the filmmakers of the movement known as the New German Cinema, Schlöndorff and von Trotta were the most accomplished social realists. Combining elements of melodrama and social satire, Katharina Blum is powerful to the degree that the acting is understated and the direction is supported by a nuanced sense of dramatic irony.
The Lost Honor 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 most disturbing aspect of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, though, 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 parallels between the situation depicted in Katharina Blum and the current climate of fear in the U.S. are stunningly apparent from the opening sequence of an undercover cop using a 16mm camera to shadow a suspect. The camera may be more clumsy than today’s miniature digital models, but the threat of unfettered government surveillance is exactly the same. Schlöndorff and von Trotta close the film with a cutting epitaph directed against the Bild-Zeitung: “Should the description of certain journalistic practices bear any resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung, this is neither intentional, nor accidental, but unavoidable.”
Schlöndorff and Von Trotta’s 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. Daniele Huillet, who, with her partner Jean-Marie Straub, made films that fall into the experimental end of the New German Cinema spectrum, criticized Katharina Blum when it was first released for employing a code of realism that, she claimed, would become incomprehensible in twenty years. Time has proven her wrong. In its mapping of tensions between the individual and a paranoid society, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is an utterly contemporary film.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound magazines, and the author of Taxi Driver in the British Film Institute's Classic Film Series.