Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1974]
Written by Heinrich Böll
Translated by Leila Vennewitz

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1975]
Written and Directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta

Subtitled How Violence Develops and Where it can Lead, Böll's Katharina Blum is an examination of how man can use the most vital tenants of a liberal democracy (the free press and the legal system) to suffocate himself. The narrator is something of a reporter himself; the story unfolds in the manner of a true-crime drama, with the terrible event described, attempts made to reconstruct "the last days," and a concluding short series of epilogue-like passages. The narrator constantly avoids violence and salaciousness, but sadly confesses that it does occur in the story and he must give the reader a true accounting of things!

It's a brilliant bit of satire: Böll mocks the sanctimonious yellow journalists by writing in a similarly hypocritical vein. Should we somehow miss the point, the novella opens with the warning: "Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung [Germany's equivalent to The New York Post apparently], such resemblance is neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable." It's an epigram worthy of Twain, telling the reader beforehand exactly the kind of scum with whom (s)he will be soon dealing.

Katharina is a housekeeper and sometime waitress/caterer. She meets a handsome man named Ludwig at a party and has him over for the night. The next morning Ludwig is gone and the police are at her door demanding his whereabouts. She is taken to the station for questioning, scrutinized in the most brusque fashion. The next day her face is on page one of the Bild-Zeitung as a gangster's moll. A chain of events is now set in motion involving Blum that will lead to her shooting the BZ reporter responsible for the smear campaign. While Blum is the focal point of the story, we see the effects of the incident on her employers the Blornas (the husband of whom is her lawyer), her mother, and anyone who tries to help her.

Chapters are fragmentary, often jumping around in the story's chronology. The effect is of someone pasting together the story as best as possible from scattered chunks of court testimony, BZ articles, secret sources, and simple rumors and allegations. In so doing, it is revealed to the reader just how secretly interconnected things are in a supposedly transparent democracy...and who's ass gets saved from the fire when embarrassing information comes to light.

The most notable change made by Schlöndorff and von Trotta is the (perhaps necessary, perhaps unnecessary) linearization of the story. We go from Thursday to Sunday with intertitles dividing the days. While this ultimately keeps Katharina's violent outburst a mystery, it does allow us to view the collaboration of the police and the BZ explicitly and immediately. It's a shift in emphasis that aides the dramatic: Blum's role as martyr is thus given more pathos and the malfeasance of the BZ is thus more dastardly portrayed. The text's satirical touches are also thus stripped away. The book's message is retained, but it is presented in darker, more serious tones.

The narrowing of focus means we also lose sight of the Blornas' storyline. It's Katharina's movie and we are blessed with a stunning performance by Angela Winkler. The incredible irony of the title is that, no matter the slander or setbacks, Blum never acts dishonorably. There are shades of Joan of Arc here, but Blum isn't acting on God or any man's behalf. She does what is right and honorable because that's the kind of woman she is. Such a complex character is hard to pull off, especially without crashing into Steel Magnolias territory. If this were a Hollywood production, complete with Meryl Streep in Oscar-bait performance, we'd get haunting string music, long shots of sunset vistas, and silent tears...all the shit that we've been taught symbolizes a strong woman, but in fact only signifies expensive melodrama. Winkler is given no such pedestrian cinematic crutches; she simply acts and is fantastic.

Not that melodrama doesn't sneak into the proceedings. There are two pseudo-car chases early on which seem a bit out of place (they weren't in the book). Katharina is present at the aftermath of Ludwig's capture and even gets a tearful last embrace with her beloved as the two cross paths while being escorted to their respective cells by the police. That last one is an emotional cop out along the lines of what I was ranting about above (in the Oscar telecast, it would be her clip in the Best Actress montage), but it does not diminish an otherwise spectacular performance.

The movie is beautiful, if not a bit one-dimensional at times. It's worth a watch, but you've got to read the book to get the full story.

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