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THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Angela Winkler, Mario Adorf, Dieter Laser, Jurgen Prochnow
Directors:  Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe von Trotta
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  March 4, 2003

“What are you scared of?  Aren’t you innocent?”

Film ***

It’s amazing how some political films grow more, and not less, topical with the passage of time.  The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum tells the story of a country gone mad with the fear of terrorists, and how democracy and civil liberties can easily become casualties in the quest for peace and safety.  But neither this film nor the novel it was based on could have foreseen the events of September 11, 2001 when they first came out more than 25 years ago.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the world of Katharina Blum and our society, where paranoia is always dangerously close to snuffing out compassion.  But truth be told, the novel and the film more reflect the fear of a runaway press than a runaway government.  Author Heinrich Boll suffered personal attacks and career damage from one of Germany’s prominent tabloid papers; it’s no wonder that “The Paper”, as it is referred to in the story, seems to march forward and over the lives of people like a mindless Nazi goose step.

As directed by Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum seems to sadly and satirically contemplate the fate of its naïve title character.  Blum (Winkler) is a simple housekeeper who makes the mistake of falling for the charms of Ludwig (Prochnow) and spending a romantic evening with him in her apartment, not knowing that he’s a notorious terrorist that the government has been searching for.

Somehow Ludwig avoids capture, but the police seize Katharina in her home, where they clumsily search everything and force her to change clothes in full view before taking her in for interrogation.  A hastily written quote she had copied from Karl Marx doesn’t help her case, nor does the overwhelming need of the police force to prove they’ve accomplished SOMETHING in their war against terrorism.

But if the cops seem brutal and unfeeling, the press seems rabid and zealous.  They wage a paper-selling but grossly unfair smear campaign against Katharina, twisting words and re-inventing quotes from her associates and employers, and even sneaking in to see her terminally ill mother for a monstrous confrontation that possibly kills her.  All in the gloating name of freedom of the press.

It’s that freedom of the press that is trumpeted at the finale, though one can easily discern a difference between the falsely noble spoken words and the truth of what we’ve seen tragically play out.  Katharina’s final act of self defense may be a crowd pleaser to the viewing audience, but not to the world she’s ensnared in.

This is a thoughtful, if sometimes over-the-top look at what can happen when fear runs rampant and when innocent lives have their cost calculated in public temperance and publications sold.  The cops’ over-eagerness to turn Katharina into a dangerous criminal seems a bit too far-fetched for me at points…but then again, maybe it’s more realistic than we’d care to admit.  And maybe too close for comfort.

Video ****

This is a superb anamorphic offering from Criterion!  The quality of the coloring, the clarity of the images, the sharpness of the detail from start to finish are absolute perfection.  You’d never guess the age of the movie by the transfer, which makes it seem even more current and topical.  Highest marks.

Audio **1/2

The mono soundtrack is more than adequate, with seemingly clean and clear dialogue throughout, and a few more rambunctious scenes that give the audio a little more spatial depth and dynamic range. 

Features ***

The disc includes new interview footage with co-directors Schlondorff and von Trotta, plus a new interview with cinematographer Jost Vacano (who also supervised the DVD transfer), excerpts from a 1977 documentary about author Heinrich Boll, plus the original trailer.

Summary:

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a modest yet exacting piece of political commentary about fear going awry and power being abused against individuals in the name of protected society as a whole.  One can only hope that we can view this DVD in time to still consider it a cautionary tale in our age, instead of seeing it as an all-too-late “I told you so”.