How often do you read or see something that excites you, titillates you, and perhaps even angers you? As we grow ever closer to a presidential election, it seems almost daily that such an occurrence happens. Articles, photos, and videos are released, each campaign trying to paint the other as “less than” in the eyes of the public. What’s truly terrifying is how few times readers research what it is that they absorb before sharing. How frequently the context is missing from a blurb or how what’s presented as truth is actually reshaped into the literal definition of fake news. Twisting the truth to create a narrative is not new at all as yellow journalism, a term created in the mid-1890s which describes the journalistic practice of sensationalism and exaggeration over truth, continues to hold value to some, yet we as a global society never learn to take a moment to consider a different position or perspective when what we take it doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve created for ourselves. Though their film doesn’t explore the social impact of a populace unwilling to consider their sources, co-directors Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta do explore how easily perception can be twisted under the guise of justice and popularity in their adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s book The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre de Katharina Blum), a recent edition to the Criterion Collection.
The morning after a one-night stand, Katharina Blum’s (Angela Winkler) relaxing breakfast quickly turns malignant as local police officers break down her door in search of her paramour. It seems the man she shared a bed with, Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow), is believed to be a terrorist they’ve had under surveillance and now they see her as his accomplice. Though she has an answer for each question she’s asked, it’s clear Katharina is hiding something and, in their willingness to capture Ludwig, the police accept help from a sleazy newspaper reporter. As more and more articles come out painting Katharina as a trollop and her everyday life is turned upside down, the truth becomes less important to the police than capturing their target, possibly destroying more than one life in the process.
In the span of 106 minutes, Schlöndorff and von Trotta present a tale which becomes progressively disturbing as it goes on. It’s not that the film is filled with salacious depravity, it’s that even for a film from 1975, the presentation of police desperate to catch their target and amoral reporters willing to destroy lives to produce a story is remarkably current. Presented almost entirely from the perspective of Katharina, the audience is mostly left up to their own conclusions as to whether her lover is who the police proclaim and if she’s not the innocent she claims. As the police gain information from Katharina or her friends and family, so does the audience, meaning that our perception of her may shift, yet Schlöndorff and von Trotta never position her as anything less than the victim of a system where the truth matters less than perception. It certainly helps that the direction is claustrophobic, making the audience feel as trapped as Katharina, which makes the end of the film a bittersweet relief, even if it’s the only way the film could end and feel victorious. To their credit, Schlöndorff and von Trotta never belittle or degrade Katharina, they merely heap constant punishment upon her from men of all kinds: lovers, friends, acquaintances, and more, each one attempting to take some piece of Katharina for themselves. To her incredible credit, Angela Winkler as Katharina is almost entirely a stonewall as she reacts to each transgression with an incredible grace and a strange stoicism. As the film plays out, what she endures, what we observe her suffer through, becomes one humiliation after another that no decent person should experience. But when so many are willing to take advantage, to presume the idiocy of the public, that a woman is nothing more than a foil for a man, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum suggests that is something that has happened and will continue to happen because we, the audience (i.e. the public), are complicit.
Looking at the film from a technical perspective, the restoration is in line with what cinephiles, collectors, and others expect from Criterion. Opening with intrigue, cinematographer Jost Vacano (Robocop) captures the mystery and intrigue of the story immediately, as a mysterious man we later learn is Ludwig stands upon a traveling ferry. Vacano’s visual style for the film is one of isolation and coldness, where whether the characters are alone or in company, in despair or in celebration, the icy breathe of danger lurks on the outskirts of the frame. In this regard, the restoration maintains the crispness of the footage, presenting Germany as visually cold, but not lifeless, so that only the costumes and outdated technology truly belie the era. When considering this purchase, do keep in mind that the included bonus features are originally from the 2002 DVD release when The Lost Honor first joined the Criterion collection. Those who own the film already will need to consider if improved picture via 4K restoration and an uncompressed soundtrack are worth the price of an upgrade.
As a former Communication major and member of the film press, there is a seeping horror within The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum that quite honestly shook me upon its conclusion. As explained by film critic Amy Taubin’s essay included within the Blu-ray release, Böll wrote the original novel after an incident left him the subject of intense surveillance and scrutiny. As a result, his novel included a disclaimer, one which Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta end their film upon: “All characters and events are fictitious. The descriptions of certain journalistic practices are neither intentional nor accidental but unavoidable.” So often do people say, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” But to those who have a narrative to support, they will take anything they find and twist until your innocence is forever gone. We the public and we the press have a social contract of care that is too often stamped upon in favor of purported notoriety, when, in fact, all we’re doing is bolstering ourselves at the expense of others. The bill will eventually come due and I, for one, am concerned that we’ll realize how high a price we paid for so little.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum Special Features
- New 4K restoration, approved by co-director Volker Schlöndorff and producer Eberhard Kunkersdorf
- Uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Interview from 2002 with co-directors Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta
- Interview from 2002 with director of photographer Jost Vacano
- Excerpts from a 1977 documentary on author Heinrich Böll
- An essay from film critic Amy Taubin
Available on Blu-ray and DVD August 4th, 2020 from The Criterion Collection.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.