21 June 2009

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM (Dir. Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe Von Trotta, 1975, Germany) - 'How violence develops and where it can lead...'

A key film from New German Cinema of the 70s.

My experiences with New German cinema from the 1970s tends to be defined by colossal authorial figures like Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Fassbinder who undoubtedly helped to shape contemporary European cinema. Perhaps it is right to begin by saying that most of the academic film criticism in circulation in the mainstream is to some extent a reflection of patriarchal obsessions and concerns. The marginalisation of women in cinema also extends to the way in which they are written about or not written about by film academics and critics. 'The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum' made me realise that their is a particularly antagonistic side to film academia which wants to label this as another key film in the oeuvre of German film maker Volker Schlondorff, when in reality, the co director Von Trotta, a woman, is regularly sidelined and whose contribution is as equally valid (if not more so) as that of her male collaborator. So who's film is this? That's a problematic one considering I have no prior experience of watching a film by either Schlondorff or Von Trotta but the strong feminist slant would obviously tip the scales in the favour of the later, I guess rightly so.

Angela Winkler as Katharina Blum and Jurgen Prochnow as the Marxist-anarchist, Ludwig Gotten.

Unlike their contemporaries, Schlondorff and Von Trotta had an arguably less discernible authorial style. This may have been due to the fact that their first few films together were a collaboration and thus it would have made it difficult to say the least for either of them to try and leave their own individual, distinct stamp on the films without appearing as though were trying to selfishly hijack the project. Nevertheless, Schlondorff still regularly gets a grudging mention whenever New German cinema is discussed but the same cannot be said for poor Von Trotta whose contribution to European cinema has been cruel fully overlooked and perhaps even deliberately set aside for its uncomfortable political arguments, many of which are still prescient in today's culture of fear, much of which has largely been manufactured by the media at large.

In what is an indispensable profile on Von Trotta, freelance writer Ben Andac states quite clearly in his opening introduction:

'Born in Berlin in 1942, Margarethe von Trotta is two things: the most important woman director to emerge from the New German Cinema, and narrative cinema's foremost feminist filmmaker. Bold claims indeed – but irrefutable ones in my opinion, for there is no other director, male or female, who has matched von Trotta's single-minded determination to show cinema audiences real female characters. Whilst past great directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi have tackled feminist issues to some degree, von Trotta stands as one of the first women to break through the male-dominated film industry to further film study and analyse the dominant subjective views of women in films.'

http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/von_trotta.html

Such a bold claim is evident in the symbolic feminism of Katharina Blum's apolitical character. Much of Van Trotta's work is available on DVD but not in the UK; a box set of her films can be imported through specialised DVD websites. Having trained under crime master Jean Pierre Melville in France, Schlondorff came to prominence as an international film maker with his debut 'Young Torless' in 1966, but it was 1975 that marked his first collaboration with Von Trotta, signalling a short lived series of films that were characterised by a rigorous political realism. 'The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum' was based on a best selling novel of the same name in which the leftist German writer Heinrich Boll detailed the persecution and victimisation of an innocent house keeper who unknowingly meets a radical Marxist, Ludwig Gotten, at a late night party and invites him back to her apartment. Though Gotten is being tailed by the police, his attempt to use the party as a cover results in him meeting Katharina and the two instantly make an emotional connection.

As this is a political film, Schlondorff uses elements of the thriller genre to make it much more accessible for a mainstream audience. However, unlike many other auteur vehicles of the German new wave that emerged out of the 70s, this is a film which must be read as a response to the stark political crisis that faced German society at the time. The emergence of a politically engaged generation of German students led to the formation of radical Marxist groups like the Baader Meinhof who were disillusioned with the capitalist state and what it could offer them as individuals. The film like the book vividly constructs a complex political argument that implicates the state and its complicit collusion with influential agents of ideological power like the right wing press that creates the necessary conditions for violence to exist and which subsequently leads to the growth of terrorist labelled left wing political organisations.

The right wing press run a terrifying smear campaign, intruding upon the privacy of Katharina.

Once Katharina is arrested, the right wing press and one newspaper in particular (a thinly veiled attack on a prominent German newspaper of the time which conspired with the civil authorities to condemn left wing political ideals as something akin to anarchism and terrorism) run a nasty smear campaign, sensationalising her private life and exploiting the emotional sentiments of a fragile German society to portray Katharina as though she was a terrorist sympathiser and a harbinger of political violence. What we see at work is the insidious nature of the mainstream press and its totally vindictive charge to shape and determine the political agenda of everyday German life. It works terrifyingly affectingly in demonising Katharina and turning the political struggle between left and right into something of a soap opera, thus neutralising the idea of political debate into a matter of popular opinion.

Aside from the consistently angry feminist voice lurking in the ideological subtext of the film, (for a more detailed reading of the feminist content of the film, read the following article by Daniel Cetinich on the Jump Cut website), what seemed to send a shudder through me was the unremitting indictment of the media and how the press is used as an instrument of right wing propaganda. Contemporary parallels with the Bush administration's relationship with Murdoch's Fox News channel are quite relevant here, especially given the fact that news is manufactured to follow an agreeable political agenda. The political theories of both Gramsci and Althusser feature quite strongly in this case. Althusser argued that hegemony functions by demanding consent from the majority and in the film we see both instruments of repression (the police and press) used by the state to ensure that Katharina's persecution and humiliation acts as both a warning and a symbol of the elite's unflinching desire to crush left wing sentiments.

The politicisation of Katharina Blum.

At the end, when Katharina comes face to face with the cocky and narcissistic journalist who has led a smear campaign against her, fabricating lies and violating her sacred private life, she kills him and finally we see how state repression breeds hate, creates fear and above all, ferments the exact ideology they are trying to expunge - terrorism. Yet Katharina's act of violence which comes at the end of the film seems perversely normal given the nightmarish and inhumane level of persecution directed towards her by the state and its conspirators. Katharina's politicisation is also complete now. At the beginning, she appears to have no real political affiliations and is considered in many ways an apolitical figure but the appalling treatment that she receives transforms her, and radicalises her into adopting a hardened left wing political position. What we have then is effectively the state's creation of a so called terrorist. I think it is this above all that makes 'The Last Honour of Katharina Blum' stand out as a very significant and deeply prescient example of European political film making.

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