The first European box-office success of the movement dubbed the New German Cinema, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s 1975 The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum took on a hot-button issue: the paranoia provoked by homegrown terrorism and the opportunity that offered for mass surveillance by the state. At the time of its initial theatrical release, the film was regarded by some critics as too topical, and by the filmmakers’ more experimental cohorts as too closely wedded to old-fashioned social realism, stylistically, to have any lasting place in film history—a rush to judgment that proved stunningly incorrect. During the past forty-five years, worldwide government and corporate surveillance has proliferated unchecked. The information gathered, as Schlöndorff and von Trotta also foresaw, is often used by the “yellow press” to destroy the reputation of anyone who challenges entrenched systems of power. Back when The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum was first released by Criterion on DVD, in early 2003, eighteen months after 9/11, the United States was already engaged in unprecedented monitoring of its own citizens. Nearly two decades later, the term surveillance capitalism has common currency.
Schlöndorff and von Trotta’s film is adapted from the Nobel Prize–winning author Heinrich Böll’s novel of the same name, which is subtitled How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead. Böll had been the target of a smear campaign by the Bild-Zeitung, the most popular daily tabloid in Axel Springer’s West German media empire. After he criticized the paper for stirring up mass hysteria with its coverage of the violent, leftist Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Bild-Zeitung retaliated by branding Böll a terrorist sympathizer. He and his family were subjected to police surveillance, searches, and wiretaps. Böll’s response was to write The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. Schlöndorff and von Trotta end their film adaptation with a disclaimer based on the one in Böll’s novel: “All characters and events are fictitious. The descriptions of certain journalistic practices are neither intentional nor accidental but unavoidable”—Böll had named the Bild-Zeitung in his, and viewers of the film most likely would have understood the implication. Today, it is unavoidable that American viewers will analogize Springer to Rupert Murdoch, and the Bild-Zeitung to Fox News.
The New German Cinema was well underway when the film came out, having been launched more than a decade earlier, in 1962, with the publishing of the Oberhausen Manifesto, a proclamation made by a loose confederation of filmmakers and actors declaring their break from mainstream film production and distribution and also renouncing, as had the French New Wave a few years earlier, the classical forms of European art cinema—the “tradition of quality”—in both form and content. As in France, and in the United States with the emerging American independent film movement, this new cinema united filmmakers with very different styles and preoccupations, including artists with signatures as distinctive as the prolific, politically and formally radical Rainer Werner Fassbinder; the experimental team Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet; the unclassifiable philosopher-theorist-filmmaker Alexander Kluge; and the wildly different storytellers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Women directors, for the most part, arrived later. It was not until the late seventies that von Trotta, Helke Sander, Helma Sanders-Brahms, and Ulrike Ottinger began to make significant work on their own, each of them as particular in her approach to film representation as her male colleagues. What they all shared was the desire to develop a personal film language, often tied to political issues.
Schlöndorff had studied at the Sorbonne in the late fifties and stayed in Paris to work as an assistant to prominent directors of the French New Wave, among them Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, and Jean-Luc Godard. He returned to his native Germany in the early years of the New German Cinema’s challenge to old-guard institutions—when the filmmakers were finding support from the country’s major television networks—and quickly made his mark with Young Törless (1966), based on the novel by the Austrian writer Robert Musil. His devotion to literary adaptations and a more realist style was evident from his early features, among them a made-for-TV version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1970), which stars Fassbinder and, in a supporting role, von Trotta, who had also acted in Fassbinder’s Gods of the Plague (1969) and The American Soldier (1970).
“At every minute of the film, there are various possible interpretations of Katharina’s actions and character, but it is impossible to settle on any one of them as a representation of the truth.”
Schlöndorff and von Trotta married in 1971 and cowrote several films in which von Trotta also performed, most notably A Free Woman (1972), which is something of a prologue to Katharina Blum in depicting the difficulty of female independence in West Germany. Katharina Blum is the only film they codirected (they divorced in 1991). It jump-started von Trotta’s filmmaking career, which has focused largely on narratives about women, fictional and biographical. A few years later, another literary adaptation, of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, would bring Schlöndorff worldwide acclaim. The strength of Katharina Blum has a great deal to do with the successful merging of the two filmmakers’ passionate concerns: his with the complexity of translating literary works into cinema, hers with the representation of women’s political and psychological struggles against patriarchy.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum opens not with an image of its protagonist—Katharina (Angela Winkler) does not appear until the third sequence—but rather with a close-up of the person who will be the vehicle for her coming to consciousness. He is Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow), a handsome man, perhaps in his thirties, with a face that seems open but, when scrutinized, reveals nothing. We see him first in color, standing on the deck of a ferry, and then in black and white, through the lens of a 16 mm camera wielded by a middle-aged man who might be filming tourist river views of Cologne but is in fact monitoring Götten. The color and the black-and-white images are intercut, until Götten, who probably knows he is being surveilled, leaps into his car and speeds away. We next see him enter a dance bar that is crowded with costumed carnival-week revelers. He greets two young women and takes one of them onto the dance floor. The two women, Götten, and a man costumed as a sheik, whom we’ve seen making a secret tape recording of his observations of Götten, speed off to another party, where the women have planned to meet their friend Katharina. She is there, and easy to spot in the crowd because, like Götten, she’s not in costume. Perhaps that’s the reason that Katharina and the suspected terrorist are immediately attracted to each other. They dance together for a long time and then leave the apartment, whereupon we see them only in black-and-white surveillance footage until they embrace outside the door to Katharina’s flat.
We might expect the next scene to be their lovemaking, but no, suddenly it’s early morning and riot police are storming Katharina’s apartment. She tells them that Götten left before she woke up and she doesn’t know where he is. Inspector Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) interrogates Katharina as though she’s a criminal and drags her off to the police station, showing his captive off to “our colleagues from the press.” It is the first of a series of interrogations in which Katharina’s refusal to provide the police with information about Götten hardens the inspector’s view that, at the least, she is the accomplice of a terrorist, and he becomes increasingly brutal in his treatment. What is fascinating in the construction of the film’s narrative is that we never learn whether Götten is a terrorist, or what he said or did in the few hours they spent together that not only caused her to help him escape but inspired her loyalty and love. All she tells the police about their encounter is that they treated each other with “tenderness,” which is a direct rebuke to her interrogators but also, however inchoate her understanding of this, to all the men she has ever known, who value her only as long as she submits to their codes of honor.
The title of the film has a double meaning: Katharina’s honor is lost because of the smear campaign carried out by “the Paper,” with the complete cooperation of the police. But she also loses her belief in what has constituted her own sense of honor, when she realizes that it is based on her submission to the very men who have betrayed her: the priest who headed the convent where she was educated; the lawyer who hired her as a housemaid for himself and his wife and introduced her to the married politician who is his client and who showered her with gifts in the hope that she would become his mistress. None of them does so much as write a protest letter to the Paper when Tötges (Dieter Laser), the reporter who is “investigating” the “Blum woman,” makes up the damning quotes he attributes to the lawyer, or when he sneaks into the ICU where Katharina’s mother is recovering from surgery and “helps” her say the words that condemn her daughter, though the poor woman is beyond speech and dies the next day. Coming on top of the police harassment, the front-page smears on every newsstand, and the barrage of threatening phone calls and obscene missives shoved under her door, the death of her mother pushes Katharina over the edge, and she becomes the violent criminal she has been accused of being. The unspoken irony—what you might not realize until after the film ends—is that Götten exploits Katharina just as much as every other man does, seducing an inexperienced young woman and relying on her sense of honor to keep secret his whereabouts.The great directors of the New German Cinema had easily identifiable styles. Fassbinder combined the confined settings and frontal compositions associated with staged plays with the transcendent lighting in religious Renaissance painting to depict working-class life. Herzog’s movies favored the visionary subjectivity of outsiders, fanatics, and madmen. Wenders searched out the poetry in genre narratives. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum relies on a kind of social realism, which is similar to American independent films of the period. It is based on the idea that truth exists in the real world and can be recorded with the camera. Schlöndorff and von Trotta frequently use the zoom lens to close in on faces, but what is interesting—specifically dialectical—in their use of the close-up is that we are no more sure of who Katharina is or what she feels and thinks when her face fills the screen than when we see her at a distance. In other words, they employ the language of film realism to demonstrate how inadequate it is. Katharina is an enigma to us, and perhaps to herself. At every minute of the film, there are various possible interpretations of her actions and character, but it is impossible to settle on any one of them as a representation of the truth. On the other hand, the actions of the police and of Tötges are recorded straightforwardly and in great detail, so that we have no doubts about their goals and motivations.
“The power and relevance of Katharina Blum today have everything to do with the linkage of a fact-free free press to surveillance capitalism. Whoever controls information also controls disinformation.”
Although it is not an exaggeration to claim that Katharina is prosecuted for the crime of being a woman, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a feminist film only in the negative—in the way it depicts the impediments to a feminist politics. Specifically, there is not a single woman in the film who comes fully to Katharina’s defense. In various ways, these women are intimidated by the authorities and afraid of what they will lose by speaking out. The film’s primary focus is the fragility of liberal democracy and the role played by the yellow press in vandalizing truth in order to enforce the patriarchal, reactionary power structure. In the final scene of the film, Tötges’s funeral—when the publisher of the Paper delivers an ode to the freedom of the press—there is not a word of protest, even though the assembled mourners all know that the meaning of freedom is as upside-down here as in 1984. The power and relevance of Katharina Blum today have everything to do with the linkage of a fact-free free press to surveillance capitalism. Whoever controls information also controls disinformation. (And as I write in spring 2020, it is difficult not to fear that the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a fatal blow to the civil right to privacy.)
But in light of the films von Trotta went on to make, we can perceive the embryonic desire for women’s empowerment bubbling up in scene after scene of Katharina Blum. It’s probable that the complexity of Katharina and the subtle depictions of all the female characters, even when they have only one or two brief scenes, is largely attributable to von Trotta’s work with the actors and on the script. She would soon direct two films that depict the different routes women take to undermine and overthrow patriarchal power: The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978) and Marianne and Juliane (1981). In both, she comes down on the side of solidarity among women as the necessary condition of a feminist politics. In a 2018 interview for Sight & Sound, von Trotta spoke about the current political situation in Germany, which might well apply to all of Europe and the United States too:
“The issue is whether the past is really over, or whether something is resurfacing that we all thought had been put to bed, but that was somehow still present under the surface. We are all a little afraid of the new nationalism; you can’t call it National Socialism, but there is a nationalist resurgence now. So perhaps the past that we thought was over is in fact still with us.”
More than taking the temperature of its time, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum acutely measured the dangers of the near future, which is now fully upon us.
This piece has been expanded by the author from one originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2002.