This website is my hobby. My day job is at a Swedish tabloid where I write headlines and occasional columns, and run a blog together with our Hollywood correspondent. I’ve been doing this for a few years and I know how this business works, its virtues and flaws. Watching this film, which is a condemnation of virtually the entire tabloid industry, is obviously an interesting experience for me. It ends with a statement saying that none of the characters are based on real-life figures, but any similarities to real-life events are unintentional but unavoidable. The filmmakers’ attitude is cheeky – but they do have valid points.
Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow) is being followed by men who take pictures of him. He knows that they’re after him and heads to a club where he meets a few girls and guys out to party. He joins them and they all go to an apartment where he meets Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler), who works as a maid for an upper-class couple. They spend the night together. The morning after, police barge into her apartment, but Ludwig is already gone; Katharina helped him escape without anyone noticing.
Under Beizmenne’s (Mario Adorf) supervision, Katharina is taken to the station where she’s interrogated. He refuses to believe that she doesn’t know anything about Ludwig and tries to break her down. From the start, he grants a tabloid, Zeitung, and its star reporter, Werner Tötges (Dieter Laser), special access to the case…
Two powerful institutions in collaboration
This classic is certainly very relevant to life in West Germany in the 1970s. This was a time when the Red Army Faction and its terror activities shook the nation. Part of the argument against the state, as expressed by members of the group, is that West Germany was “fascist”. A falsehood invented by deluded radicals, but there was indeed a certain unease in the country at the time, which was particularly felt by its young citizens, and this movie (and Heinrich Böll’s novel) pointed a finger at the root of the problem – and also offered an explanation of how some kids could be radicalized.
Perhaps this young democracy had failed to fully take responsibility for its shameful past during the war, and perhaps the government’s brutal response to the radical left (which had been crushed during the war by the Nazis) only made matters worse. The film shows two powerful institutions, the police and the media, in collaboration, which only seems to bring out their worst sides. Swedish tabloids have never been as aggressive as its German and British equivalents (due to very different cultures), but watching Tötges at work here makes me cringe, even though I know he’s a caricature; Laser is hugely entertaining as the fashionable reporter, but his behavior risks burning too many bridges in the end to be entirely believable. Our sympathy lies entirely with Winkler who does help a criminal escape, but is subjected to unimaginable public pain.
As part of the New German Cinema, Volker Schlöndorff’s effort together with his then-wife Margarethe Von Trotta (in her directing debut) also clearly took a feminist stand in their portrayal of Katharina as a well-written, complex protagonist.
When this film was released as a Criterion Collection DVD, Schlöndorff argued that it remains relevant, especially after the Iraq War when the U.S. media was accused of being in cahoots with the Bush Administration, failing to do its job and uncover the lies and mistakes that led up to the war. That’s the kind of awkward truths at the heart of this film that matters more than cheap caricatures of journalists.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum 1975-West Germany. 106 min. Color. Produced by Willi Benninger, Eberhard Junkersdorf, Gunther Witte. Written and directed by Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe Von Trotta. Novel: Heinrich Böll. Cast: Angela Winkler (Katharina Blum), Mario Adorf (Beizmenne), Dieter Laser (Werner Tötges), Heinz Bennent, Jürgen Prochnow.
Trivia: Original title: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. Remade as a TV movie in the U.S., The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck (1984).