The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum Review
Written and directed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1975 in collaboration with Margarethe von Trotta, based on a then as yet unpublished novel by Heinrich Böll, it’s the immediacy of relevance to a particular period in German history that makes it The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum an interesting film, but it’s its challenging of accepted but unacceptable values in a society prepared to walk over the rights and the decency of the individual that make it a film that still has wider relevance and meaning today.
The period in question is the years leading up to the “Deutschland Herbst” of the autumn of 1977 when the actions of extreme left-wing terrorist groups known as the Baader-Meinhof gang and the RAF (Red Army Faction) would come to a head, leaving the German general public confused, suspicious, paranoid and living in fear, that fear in part to a large degree generated by the authorities and the press. Although those events had yet to rise to such prominence, the erosion of civil liberties for ordinary citizens had already been noted, and it’s precisely this topic, more than the rights and wrongs of actions of anarchist-terrorists, that are the subject of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.
Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) is a bit of a mystery. In every respect a model citizen, a divorced young woman, living modestly, working as a housekeeper, she is quiet and doesn’t even consort with men, to such an extent that she is known to her friends as “the nun”. Attending a friend’s party one evening however during Carnival she encounters a known anarchist, Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow), who is being followed by the secret police, and to the surprise of everyone, leaves early, takes him home and spends the night with him. When the police raid her apartment the next morning however, there is no sign of Götten. Taken in for interrogation, the police do not believe Katharina’s story of it being a random encounter, suspecting that she has been helping shelter other terrorists, but Katharina doesn’t fit the model of a terrorist sympathiser and in fact, doesn’t fit any model that they can easily categorise. This only leads them to be more suspicious of her activities and investigate further, with the help of the gutter press who are only too keen to dig up what dirt they can find to help sell more papers.
Living supposedly in a “free country”, one moreover that claims to defend liberties and freedom of speech in a way that is not done in the other half of the divided Germany, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, as its full German title indicates (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann – “How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead”) is very clearly a protest against the establishment of a quasi police state and a warning of where the erosion of civil liberties, whether through police suspicion or press smear tactics, can lead to if not challenged by the people – a topic and sentiment that is a consistent theme throughout the works of Volker Schlöndorff. Where is the freedom and dignity when even a decent, honourable hard-working woman like Katharina Blum can be vilified, spied upon and have unjustified accusations laid against her? It’s enough to make an anarchist out of anyone.
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is very clearly born out of a sense of moral outrage at how such activities can be tolerated in a progressive democratic society and are related very specifically to treatment that the prominent German writer Heinrich Böll himself experienced at the hands of the press. It does however tend to paint the situation in terms of black-and-white. All of the police and justice authorities are without exception arrogant, believing their behaviour is beyond reproach, that they can take the law as far as they like if it’s to protect and serve the public. Likewise the press are nothing but scoundrels, harassing private, innocent individuals and even Katharina’s sick mother, lying in bed after a hospital operation – twisting quotes and misrepresenting in order to get a headline. There’s no question that there is accuracy in such a representation, but it isn’t helped by the fact that there is no middle ground, with almost no attempt is made to delve into the background or examine the morality of the actions of the anarchist Ludwig Götten, Jürgen Prochnow consequently given very little to do in the film.
While the method may be a little heavy-handed, stretching realism and omitting issues that don’t conveniently suit its purpose, there is however truth in the essence of the question the film raises, one that at this period in time was necessary and brave to raise in such a manner (the newspaper Zeitung, known only as “The Paper”, clearly refers to a well-known German popular paper Bild), but it also has wider, universal application. Much of the effectiveness with how these issues are represented is down to a fine performance by Angela Winkler as Katharina Blum, the air of paranoia and latent violence evoked by Hans Werner Henze’s original score, and the absurdity of setting the film during the Carnival period in Cologne. Despite some heavy satirical underlining in the film’s epilogue, that point is ultimately very well made.
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Optimum. The disc is BD25 and the film comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are Standard Definition NTSC. The disc is playable All Region. Soundtrack and subtitle options are detailed in the sidebar and in the Optimum StudioCanal Collection news item. As noted in the news item, a selection of menus at start-up makes this edition compatible for international release.
Apart from some initially worrying flicker and heavy grain in the open title sequence of the film – footage that later proves to be handheld footage shot by the secret police – the actual quality of the main body of the film and its transfer here are superb. A faint level of grain is discernable elsewhere, but usually only in freeze-frame, meaning that the encoding of the print is well done, allowing a natural film-like quality to be achieved. The print is clear, sharp and pretty much unmarked, the transfer unmarred by digital enhancement or excessive noise reduction. Colours are well-defined, occasionally taking on a 70s greenish tint, with skin tones a little pinkish, but the accuracy and clarity are evident throughout, no more so than in a scene on a ski-slope which shows the level of detail that the transfer is capable of representing. The tone however may be a little dark and heavy on the contrast, with blacks rather deep. The transfer is relatively stable, movements are smooth and fluid, with no judder during camera pans, though some faint telecine flicker may occasionally be visible if you are looking out for it. Overall this is an impressive transfer which represents the film almost perfectly in its original 1.66:1 ratio.
The original German soundtrack is the only available audio option and it is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The presentation of the audio track again is most impressive. The sound is clear and dynamic, capturing the highs and lows while retaining a rounded tone. There is no analogue noise, hiss or distortion of any kind.
English, French, German and Japanese subtitle options are included, in a fine white font which is clearly readable throughout.
Optimum have included a fine set of substantial features to supplement the film.
Memories (51:42) consists of new interviews with Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta and producer Eberhard Junkersdorf, looking back on the making of the film, considering the period, the controversy and the process by which the film was brought to the screen. A full, fine and informative piece.
Volker Schlöndorff’s The Delayed Antigone (15:05) is excerpted from the 1978 feature Germany in Autumn – a collaborative film by a number of prominent German filmmakers in response to the Deutschland Herbst. (The full version of the film is included in the Artificial Eye release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder Volume 2). Scripted by Heinrich Böll, scored by Hans Werner Henze’s and featuring several members of the cast of Katharina Blum, its relevance to the main feature is apparent also in the subject matter of a committee of television executives fearful of broadcasting a production of Sophocles’ Antigone, with its ambiguous messages about power, defiance of authority and a scene of burial that has uncomfortable parallels to the current controversy surrounding the burial of Red Army Faction terrorists. With one executive even denouncing Sophocles as a 5th century BC terrorist, this short piece is brilliantly absurd, but all too believable and even more precise in its satire than Katharina Blum in its condemnation of authorities who believe they are looking after the interests of the public, but are in reality only interested in appeasing their political masters.
Additionally, there is a Photo Gallery (1:03) of mostly behind-the-scenes shots and the film’s Original Trailer (2:56) that denounces “tabloid terrorism”. The disc also comes with a BD-Live feature, which I wasn’t able to activate with a 1.0 profile. Illustrated with production stills, a 20-page Booklet contains an Introduction to the film by German journalist Willi Winkler, looking at the climate of the period and how it was reflected in German cinema of the time, with only a brief examination on the effectiveness of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum as a polemic.
A little heavy-handed in its treatment, a little too black-and-white in its view of the issues, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is nevertheless a fine piece of impassioned satirical filmmaking that has a serious point to make about the erosion of civil liberties, how they affect ordinary people and the dangerous direction they can take us on. Optimum’s High Definition release of the film as part of their StudioCanal Collection is most impressive, with a quite spectacular transfer and extra features that support the film well.