Another gem from States of Danger and Deceit playing in the Leeds Film Festival, this was an absolute treat from start to finish. It’s an adaptation from Heinrich Böll’s novel which, co-director Volker Schlöndorff tells us on a Criterion DVD extra, was written as an attack on the sensationalist newspaper Bild. The film turns out to be a lot more than that, though when I turned to David Wilson’s 1977 review in Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK he claims the film is far less complex than the novel. If that’s the case, the novel must really be something because the film is terrific.
The centrepiece of the film is the wonderful portrayal of Katharina Blum by Angela Winkler (who is scheduled to appear for a Q&A at HOME later this month) and that performance must also be considered in relation to Margarethe von Trotta’s guidance as co-director. Von Trotta and Schlöndorff were married at the time and originally she had planned to take the role herself but Schlöndorff saw theatre actor Winkler and von Trotta agreed to co-direct instead. A win all round for the trio, I think.
The plot revolves around a young man on the run and under surveillance. At a party Ludwig meets and hits it off with Katharina, a woman of around 30 whose friends refer to her as ‘the nun’. Katharina surprises them by taking the man home. The next morning the young man somehow leaves the block of flats unseen by the police who are baffled when they break in and he isn’t there. Katharina is arrested. Crucially, the narrative is about both the police interrogation and the newspaper coverage by a peculiarly slimy reporter and his photographer. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative.
This was one of the most popular films with its domestic audience of all of ‘New German Cinema’ in the 1970s (most didn’t reach large audiences) and it isn’t difficult to see why. On the surface a thriller, the film delves into the central social issue for the new generation of filmmakers born during 1939-45 – what Schlöndorff calls the ‘terror of consumerism’ which he cites alongside the new youth protest movement that dates from 1968 and the opposition to the Vietnam War (fuelled by the presence of so many US military bases in South-West Germany). We don’t find out exactly why the police a+re chasing Ludwig until later in the film, but the most popular newspaper doesn’t really care and he is described as ‘an anarchist’ – the same term used to describe Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin when they were first arrested for fire-bombing a department store. (Later, Margarethe von Trotta would make a film about Ensslin and her sister – Die bleierne Zeit or The German Sisters, 1981). The anti-consumerist protest could also be seen as simply anger about the ‘pale democracy’ of the Adenauer state in post-war Germany in the 1950s. The ‘economic miracle’ of German recovery disguised the hypocrisy in society and attention was diverted by the sensationalist press, especially Bild published by the Axel Springer group. What happens to Katharina in the film is actually very similar to various cases in the UK where the tabloid press, especially the papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, have attempted to sensationalise the plight of ‘ordinary people’ caught up in newsworthy stories. Bild in this film is never mentioned by name but the stories as they appear in the Zeitung (translated in the subtitles simply as ‘the paper’) would be recognisable to all German readers as referring to Bild.
The details of Katharina’s background are all important. She comes from a respectable Catholic family and the church has in the past been a sanctuary. Her mother is seriously ill in hospital and her aunt has relatives in East Germany. These are all stories the unscrupulous reporter can follow up and distort – especially if the police help him. Katharena wins our sympathy and support because she has dignity and strength in the face of over-zealous policing and the disgusting behaviour of the reporter.
Schlöndorff and von Trotta present their narrative in a heightened realism which they eventually push into absurdist scenes (which I thought were very funny). I was most taken with their representation of police and military personnel closing in on the fugitive. At first I thought the policy in their extraordinary outfits were para-military activists, i.e. the ‘terrorists’ of the time. Later on there are so many police and soldiers and so much military hardware employed to catch one man that I almost expected to see George C. Scott as General Patton preparing to invade East Germany. The absurdity is boosted further by setting the action during Carnival Week in Cologne with characters dressed in various outfits. At one point in the police station, Katharina enters the wrong room to discover a bunch of police agents dressing in drag and carnival outfits. As my colleague observed, Arabs were everywhere in the public imagination in 1975 following the oil crisis. By contrast, my favourite shot in the film is a very subtle edit. We see the interior of a flat and a character about to leave. The camera then pans left and on the wall behind is a large photograph of the ruins of a city (perhaps Cologne after a Second World War bombing raid?). A cut then takes us to the outside of the block of new flats with the character leaving a new twin tower block, seemingly situated in the same desolate landscape. The inference for me is clear. West Germany can build a new city but it hasn’t come to terms with the immediate past which lingers in the background. This sense that the history of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s must be explored and interrogated was central to the work of the new generation of filmmakers. My impression is that alongside Fassbinder with his trilogy of female-centred melodramas about German modern history from 1945, it was the female directors of New German Cinema who took the lead in investigating the personal stories of the women of the post-war period and their family roots under the Nazis. It’s difficult to find some of the DVDs, but I’m determined to try.
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was a revelation. I was already a Margarethe von Trotta fan but I know I must see more of her films. I think I’ve tended to avoid Volker Schlöndorff because his English language work hasn’t looked particularly inviting, but now I’m prepared to have a go. The States of Danger and Deceit programme is proving to be an excellent idea so kudos to Andy Willis and Rachel Hayward – and to Leeds International Film Festival for buying in.