The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, by Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff, 1975
My college years coincided perfectly with the early days of the War on Terror, when the newly formed Department of Homeland Security kept busy surveilling librarians, harassing Greenpeace members and placing citizens on “No Fly” lists, seemingly almost at random. With the Bush administration’s dictum “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” the state security apparatus found plenty of enemies, chiefly vocal critics of the Pentagon’s two new foreign wars in two years. I was one of the many.
The anti-terror panic, and its threat to personal freedoms, were familiar to many Germans. Like countries all around the world, West Germany produced a student movement in the 1960s. Axel Springer’s right-wing press outlets came down on the students with outsized Cold War hysteria, provoking both violence against student leaders and legislation against their dissent. The Red Army Faction formed partly in response, and bombed the headquarters of flagship Springer tabloid Bild-Zeitung. The government cracked down harder on civil liberties, and Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll urged an end to the madness, calling out a slide back into authoritarianism scarcely twenty years out from Nazi rule. The Bild-Zeitung went after Böll, and police followed. Böll, a peacenik public intellectual and president of free-press group PEN, wrote the novella The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum in reaction to this experience. When Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff adapted Böll’s book to film with his help, they became targets too.
In short, Katharina, a diligent, utterly scrupulous young Cologne housekeeper, goes to a Carnival-week party with cousins, where she finds herself uncharacteristically taken with a chance attendee, and he with her. She takes him home, where in the course of the night, he reveals to her that he’s wanted. Early in the morning, she helps him leave her building undetected. Once he evades their grasp, law enforcement agents go into terrorist-hunting mode, railroading the previously blameless Katharina as a dangerous subversive. The McCarthy-like furor surrounding the pair is such that it may take most of the story to realize that as far as we know, the fugitive hasn’t a political bone in his body. To our knowledge and the authorities’, he left the army with some stolen money, and that’s the extent of his rap sheet. He’s not a bank-robbing Baader-Meinhof acolyte, or anything else the detectives blithely insinuate to their scandal sheet cohorts—who proceed to hound Katharina’s employers, relatives, and distant acquaintances. With a deep well of dignity and pride, she refuses to make things easy for the self-important cops. By the time they track him down, the tabloids have so tarred her that they label the wanted man an “Intimate Partner of Katharina Blum,” rather than the other way around. Even her neighbors treat her like scum; she has to move out and stay with friends.
At first she may resemble Kafka’s characters, an everyperson chewed up in the machine. Yet unlike those men, Katharina has an unmissable vulnerability. As a woman, she’s easy bait for a slut-shaming of Orwellian proportions. One of the story’s most resonant moments for contemporary viewers and readers may come when Katharina arrives home from her first day of questioning, the uproar by then in full swing. She searches her mail and answers her phone, eager for word from her love-interest, and instead gets a barrage of personal commentary: chiefly right-wing invective and sexual threats, often combined. Fifty years ago, this was an experience reserved for certain public figures and an unlucky few. Today, anyone with an online presence can summon it up in an instant.
As public outrage grows over the “communist bitch” who dared rendezvous with a person of interest, the scurrilous treatment achieves what guerrilla recruitment never would: Katharina becomes a violent resister, and in fact, a deliberate killer. In short order she does away with her most shameless tormentor and joins fates with her new beau, who’s also headed for prison. Her transformation isn’t a spiral out of control; it’s a rational claiming of agency. She hasn’t turned into a cynic; she’s protecting the sanctity of her love. And she hasn’t lost her honor at all: rather, she kills to defend it from those who would put it in jeopardy.
Böll was a gentle soul, but his book is savagely funny—and with its pointed literalism, the film brings to life the absurdity of the story’s hypocrites, both sexual and political. A scene of a bumbling G-man dressed up as a sheik, conjecturing into his wire in a bathroom while partygoers bang on the door, is worthy of Buñuel. And what the adaptation loses in the narrator’s mordant, deadpan voice, it gains in a tighter, more legible chronology. As the book unspools over the span of four days, Böll repeatedly asks readers to follow one character, then rewind and follow another—a sort of literary voiceover technique that becomes unnecessary on film.
The directors employed nearly documentary realism at a time when it was out of fashion, immersing us in Katharina’s nightmare by refusing artifice: no sets, only real locations; no extras in wardrobe, but real Carnival revelers. Von Trotta and Schlöndorff sometimes shared DPs with Bergman and Fassbinder who favored more lyrical styles, but for Katharina Blum they hired Jost Vacano (Das Boot, Robocop). His photography for the film conveys the drab bureaucratic police purgatory with which we more often stereotype East German life. We open on the fugitive through the crosshairs of a 16mm telephoto lens, and later watch Katharina in her own car’s rearview mirror while paranoia mounts all around. She suspects she’s being followed, and of course, we’re following her.
In the film’s farcical closing scene, we witness the funeral with which Böll begins his book, that of the murdered fabulist reporter—where colleagues hold forth sanctimoniously on the “free press” as standard-bearers of liberal democracy. The book’s subtitle is How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead. This is the question: is a wildly irresponsible media outlet free to spread lies, destroy lives and provoke violence, either through direct incitement or in reaction to its recklessness? We’ve recently seen how this lack of accountability can itself threaten democracy, but especially when it comes to internet media, our country at least has answered in the affirmative.
Tabloids have always enjoyed special popularity in Europe, despite their methods coming under periodic scrutiny. The Murdoch News Corporation reconfigured somewhat after UK exposure of its bribery of police and hacking of crime victims’ phones, but continues to own our version of a national right-wing tabloid, Fox News. The Bild-Zeitung, still thriving, outsells any US paper by many orders of magnitude; it’s long had Europe’s highest circulation. Of course, US media have occasionally outdone the coverage of the European rags. The recent New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears is a kind of psychological horror movie in which tabloid media culture, and those who enable it, drive a successful young woman to madness and gleefully document her descent. She loses legal control over herself and has no way to regain it, stuck performing indefinitely for the enrichment of her captors.
Katharina didn’t have to be a teen pop star, a Windsor heir or a president’s lover. She had only to enjoy a holiday hookup with a drop-out soldier. A counterpoint to the film is Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950), where Toshiro Mifune plays an eccentric emergent painter pursued by a tabloid for his supposed role as the lover of an iconic but camera-shy singer. The magazine’s heavily embellished, speculative story spreads like wildfire among a salacious but prudish postwar public, to the righteous indignation of the painter and the mortification of his deeply private female friend. The affronted, always-heroic Mifune takes the publisher to court, and the film devolves into an unlikely morality tale in which the protagonist redeems an addict attorney (not one of Kurosawa’s better films). Its Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-tone makes a blunt contrast with both Katharina’s plight, and the reality of the past fifty years.
Margarethe Von Trotta belonged to Fassbinder’s troupe of actors when both worked with Schlöndorff on an adaptation of Brecht’s Baal (1970). Together von Trotta and Schlöndorff soon wrote A Free Woman (1972), starring von Trotta herself. It would set the tone for her future repertoire, about what a “free woman” might be. They went on to co-adapt three books, though Katharina Blum was their only co-direct. The film marks a crucial pivot point in their collaboration: Schlöndorff’s interest may have been in Böll, but von Trotta’s was in Blum, and an estimable succession of heroines who’d eventually include towering German thinkers Rosa Luxemburg, Hildegard von Bingen, and Hannah Arendt. Schlöndorff would continue adapting the canon—The Tin Drum (1979), The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), the decidedly less political Swann in Love (1984), among others—and von Trotta, then his wife, would write and direct one of Europe’s strongest bodies of feminist film. After Katharina Blum, von Trotta starred in their version of Coup de Grâce (1976) as a Latvian aristocrat-turned Bolshevik fighter, then began to make her own films. 1981’s Circle of Deceit would be her last co-write with Schlöndorff; by then he’d made The Tin Drum and she’d made the classic Marianne and Juliane (1981), beginning to work with Barbara Sukowa as her leading lady.
Von Trotta’s films are well-known in Europe, where Katharina Blum was a major hit, but her work remains underseen in the US. Perhaps it’s that unlike Schlöndorff, she’s continued to work predominantly with German actors, most notably with the incomparable Sukowa. It may be that we lack a leftist intellectual history on the scale of Europe’s, so well-embodied by her characters. Or it could be the lack of unity between our cultural and economic feminist elements, inseparable in her films. Throughout her solo career, von Trotta has made a close study of women—and the dynamics between them—in their political contexts. As a sort of inverse Bechdel Test, one might watch through her filmography looking in vain for an instance of two men sharing a scene that isn’t about a woman. Her stories grant full cerebral complexity to a roster of artists, journalists, teachers and students, refugees, sisters, friends and foils. In a couple of early films, she focused on armed militants of the kind Blum was rumored to be; in von Trotta’s Marxist-feminist fashion, one robs a bank to fund a daycare. It’s a sisterhood of women who won’t betray their convictions, no matter the cost. Katharina is its progenitor: a woman simply trolled too hard, who takes matters into her own hands.
And what of Katharina’s legal options? The libel has some basis in truth—the man is wanted and she helped him escape—so, the inspector tells her, it’s in “the public interest” for the Bild analogue to grossly invade her privacy and, apparently, print its canards. Think of another Katherine, the SoCal freshman congresswoman whose family and constituents got bombarded with revenge porn of her, in the town where they live. This time it was an unhinged ex-husband looking for alimony rather than red-baiting cops looking for a thief, but at his instigation, tabloids exploited a liaison with a campaign staffer to defame her, on the basis of the ex’s claims that she might have done worse. She ought to have had some legal recourse under California’s new revenge porn law, but in April a judge decided in favor of the “Red State” blog and the UK’s right-wing Daily Mail, declaring the intimate photos—not just their content—a matter of public interest. Likewise, the cops tell Katharina that she’s welcome to sue, but we know as they do that it’s a fool’s errand, no Capra moments to come for her.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre twist, we’ve taken to surveilling ourselves, and in so doing have created a more powerful and extensive system than DHS could’ve hoped for. Who needs informers and wiretaps when we have Instagram and Alexa? Social media has also spawned a 21st century rumor mill with a far wider reach than any fact-based reporting, leading to very real violence, all over the world. Yet for every “influencer” there may be a Katharina Blum: someone who desires nothing more than to live, love and work unwatched and unmolested. A techie neighbor installing a camera recently told me “privacy is dead,” and shrugged. We can refuse to accept that, or we can make sure it’s so.