The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
Who's the terrorist
in West Germany?

by Daniel Cetinich

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 4-5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Last year's kidnapping and execution of Hanns Martin Schleyer, a West German corporate leader, and the subsequent prison deaths (executions?) of three Baader-Meinhof members glaringly revealed the extent of Germany's political turmoil. The state reacted by increasing its already harsh repression of the left. In 1975 THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM attempted to shed light on the complex political forces at work in Germany by reaching a mass audience with the themes of political repression and violence, both state and individual.

Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta collaborated on the script and direction, giving equal emphasis to one other theme: the brutal and vindictive treatment of a woman by the police, media, and public. Based on Heinrich Böll's 1974 novel of the same name, KATHARINA BLUM dissects human rights violations in a supposedly democratic country and exposes the yellow press's distortions and lies.

Katharina Blum works as a Munich housemaid. On a Thursday evening, during a pre-Lenten carnival party, she meets and falls in love with Ludwig Götten, whom she invites to her apartment for the night. The next morning, heavily armed police marksmen burst in to arrest Götten, a suspected  thief and AWOL soldier, but he has already escaped, with Katharina's help, through the heating ducts. The police detain Katharina for harboring a wanted man.

The interrogations, coupled with the humiliating slander and psychic rape unleashed by a tabloid newspaper, ravage her once-quiet life. The same scandal sheet transforms the petty thief Götten into a "terrorist" and "anarchist." A cynical journalist depicts Katharina as a "whore" and "heartless bitch," and she becomes the target of public outrage. The yellow press exposes everything and everyone in her past to the public's curiosity, until even her mother is interviewed on her deathbed. Caring friends try to protect her, but they too fall prey to the enormous power of unscrupulous journalism. Even though she is cleared of all charges, Katharina refuses to resume her life as if nothing happened. After the three-day ordeal with the police and press, Kathanna arranges an interview with the reporter who defamed her and kills him. She subsequently gives herself up to the police.

KATHARINA BLUM shows how women are victimized at the hands of institutions controlled by men. Police inspector Beizmenne's interrogation brings this out very well. When Belzmenne first confronts Katharina at her apartment, he fires sexually compromising questions at her. "Did he fuck you?" he queries. "I wouldn't call it that," she answers, very composed and defiant. The camera moves in on her face, which breaks into a smile. His crude, irrelevant question reveals his strong contempt for her as a woman. These kinds of questions, however, are commonplace for women dealing with the police or law courts, especially in rape cases.

Heavyset, sporting a neatly trimmed black beard streaked with grey, Beizmenne begins his questioning of Katharina by employing charm and intimidation to get her to talk. Katharina does not fulfill his expectations; instead of being quiet, passive, and easily intimidated, she demonstrates an articulate, assertive, and strong character. Her self-assurance and intelligence frustrate Beizmenne. Böll and the filmmakers have created a believable woman, not a creature of male fantasy, one who emerges strengthened from her experiences as a victimized woman in capitalist society.

Describing Katharina's lovemaking with Götten as a "lay," Beizmenne views her sexual life as fair game for his degrading questions because she was not married to Götten. Katharina has no husband/ protector, which to Beizmenne means she is anyone's property. Without a legal husband, Katharina becomes a "loose woman" in Beizmenne's eyes, a woman who engages in liaisons for mere pleasure and exposes herself to deserved harassment by men.

As a representative of the capitalist state and upholder of male power, Beizmenne's actions and words exemplify the brutal relations that exist between people in such a society. There are many levels of violence; with Beizmenne it never ventures beyond language (insinuation). But the terms he uses to depict sexual relations reflect violence in that he violates Katharina's sense of privacy and her feelings.

The police, however, do not attack Katharina by themselves. She also becomes a victim of violence in society at large. When she returns home after the interrogation, with her cousin, Mrs. Woltersheim, she receives obscene phone calls and anonymous postcards containing sexual propositions. The film portrays not only one woman named Katharina but all women who constantly suffer under the pressure of male sexual aggression, be it verbal, physical, or commercial. One of the photographs she receives shows a penis penetrating a vagina. Not just limiting itself to the violence of the state and media towards a woman, KATHARINA BLUM also reveals how male society oppresses women through images that humiliate them. The photograph of penetration, by itself, might be euphemistically labeled "erotic." But erotic for whom? It's mostly men who look at these pictures. We can't help but conclude that the man — who else could it be? — who sent the picture has appropriated this so-called erotic quality to degrade Katharina. The sending of the photograph, as well as the image itself, becomes an aggressive act. The photo is a symbol of revenge for Katharina's breaking out of the prison of a woman's role and asserting her independence. In this sense, the image suggests both a warning and an assault.

Any of us could end up in Katharina's shoes through an accident of circumstance: carrying a briefcase into a building under surveillance or walking in a street where a murder occurs. The theme of an innocent person getting caught up in the net of the state has interested a politically conservative director like Hitchcock. In THE WRONG MAN, the kind, gentle, we might even say weak, Joseph Balestrero is imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, and in the process we see his identity gradually crushed by police control and coercion. THE WRONG MAN's theme of police terror stems from Hitchcock's own psychological fear of authority, the resolution of which culminates in the scene where Balestrero's mother urges him to pray for help. In KATHARINA BLUM the filmmakers focus not on the Hitchcockian conflict of the isolated individual threatened by faceless bureaucratic institutions but on the state, ruling class, and patriarchal forces, which can be analyzed and ultimately defeated.

The actions of urban guerrillas like the Baader-Meinhof group serve as a key political backdrop to the film. Böll and the filmmakers imply that the violence of the Baader-Meinhof members, just like Katharina's act, is a reaction to West German repression. In 1971 the Hamburg Senate issued a decree, which would function as a guideline for all the West German states, proscribing leftists or ultra-rightists from civil service positions, which in Germany include teachers and radio and TV personnel. The 1971 decree lies at the base of both film and novel, since they seek to set the record straight as to the origins of Germany's recent violence. By making Katharina Blum an innocent victim of government repression, the filmmakers argue that the state's indiscriminate repression and the press's irresponsibility are at least indirectly responsible for the bombings and kidnappings in Germany. Katharina's killing of Werner Tötges, the journalist from the News (similar to our National Inquirer) comes only after a long series of deceits, insinuations, and slanders, only after the police and the press have attacked every aspect of Katharina's character and social standing. The publicity around Götten — who we already know has no connection whatsoever with a terrorist group — becomes a pretext for an insidious witch hunt aimed at the left. Words like "terrorist" and "anarchist" (a favorite catchword of Germany's yellow press) are attached to communists and socialists (Katharina's father is accused of being a socialist), so that the labels are easily transposed in this Byzantine maze that the News creates. Katharina's initial apolitical outlook further impresses upon us how repression can strike anyone. Katharina's killing of Tötges, then, springs from her anger at what she suffered in such an oppressive atmosphere. It doesn't stem from any prior political conviction.

In an almost metaphorical way Schlöndorff and von Trotta contend that the contemporary violence by urban guerrillas has come only as a response to prior state violence against any dissent. Schlöndorff and von Trotta turn their cameras on the defenders of law and order, exposing an institutionalized violence, a subtle, everyday kind of brutality, that makes the Baader-Meinhof group seem tame in comparison. Therefore, we can understand how groups like this emerge under the political conditions that the 1971 decree created.

Everyone friendly to Katharina falls victim to harassment of one sort or another. The collusion of the police, press, and government becomes most apparent when we see who escapes the state's ire. Mrs. Woltersheim's husband says ironically: "They spared me. Maybe because I am an old Nazi." The filmmakers very deftly allude to the high government and media officials who refrain from singling out anyone connected with the right, either because the officials shared Mr. Woltersheim's past affiliation with the Nazi party or for fear of hurting their careers, As might be expected, Nazi agitation and publications are spared government pressure in the wake of the 1971 Hamburg decree whereas the police constantly interfere with left activities. KATHARINA BLUM laconically refers to the Nazi past in the scene where Katharina enters the Woltersheims apartment to get the gun she will use to kill Tötges. There on the wall we see a photograph of jagged, spear-like shards of bombed-out buildings — the legacy of Nazism to contemporary West German democracy.

The outright distortions and mystification that the film exposes underscores the tacit cooperation between the media and the state, which is essential in maintaining the latter's power. Throughout the film, Tötges, who personifies the politics and methods of the right-wing Springer Press, clearly accepts the government's version of the facts. Instead of pursuing investigative journalism, he concentrates on the sensationalist aspects of Katharina as a "terrorist's" lover, distorting details whenever it suits his purpose. For Tötges, democratic or even human rights have no meaning when it comes to getting a story. He proceeds to question Katharina's ex-husband, pastor, and neighbors. Tooling around in a Porsche, this modishly dressed reporter employs all the tricks at his disposal to mold Katharina's life for his own purposes.

Hubert Blorna, Katharina's liberal attorney, describes Katharina to another News reporter as "intelligent, cool, and level-headed." In the News article (which Tötges probably wrote) it comes out as "ice-cold and calculating." And Blorna's general statement — "I'm an attorney and I know that all kinds of people are capable of committing a crime. What are you talking about? Katharina? Out of the question, what in the world gave you that idea?" — becomes "Katharina is entirely capable of committing a crime." Disguising himself as an orderly, Tötges even steals into the hospital room of Katharina's mother, recovering from a cancer operation and for whom any excitement whatsoever is dangerous. "Why did it have to end like this, why did it have to come to this?" she blurts out. Tötges, of course, changes this ambiguous remark into the more dramatic: "It was bound to come to this, it was bound to end like this." Soon after, the mother dies from the emotional strain of Tötges's visit.

Schlöndorff and von Trotta have not only leveled their lens at the state but also at its subservient institutions as well. This is especially well illustrated in the sequence where Katharina goes to visit a friend of hers, Pater Urbanus, a Dominican priest who had invited her to his monastery. Urbanus ushers her into a room where she finds a former suitor, Aloysius Sträubleder, who tells her that he still loves her, urging her to keep the ring he had previously forced upon her. Well groomed in a natty grey suit, Sträubleder is an up-and-coming member of the Christian Democratic Party. As an acquaintance of the Blorns, he met Katharina at a social gathering arranged for government friends. Not surprisingly, Katharina rejects his ring and leaves him. As she departs, the camera lingers on a picture of Paul VI, while out in the driveway numerous black Mercedes limousines attest to the connections the Catholic Church has with the Bonn government.

The film's brilliant epilogue exposes, with great irony, the complex exploitative nature of capitalist institutions. There we see the News' publisher — with steel-rimmed glasses and fur-lined coat — delivering the eulogy at Tötges' funeral and praising the deceased as an upholder of the press's freedom, having given his life for the cause. But KATHARINA BLUM goes beyond a liberal attack on the yellow press, for it carefully reveals how the press and government cooperate in establishing a repressive political atmosphere. The publisher will continue to use his power to control ideas, as will also those who succeed him. But the film has clearly shown that social and economic institutions create individuals like Tötges and Beizmenne, and it is from these same structures that the source of violence flows.