Monday, January 28, 2008


The more I look around at the past, the more I start to think that anyone who is surprised by the current state of the U.S. government simply hasn't paid enough attention. There is no way to argue that it is inconceivable that the political climate would ever get this bad, because it's happened before, and despite the efforts of those who tell stories and make art to illuminate us to these sad facts, they seem to go largely unnoticed.

Case in point: the 1975 film adaptation of the Heinrich Böll novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, written and directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Maragarethe von Trotta. It's a cautionary tale of what could happen if a ruling government has too much power, and they use the fear of the people and a collaborative press corps to spread lies and maintain control. Libel is not a problem, and neither are wiretaps and intrusive investigations into the minutia of the lives of regular citizens. These are the acts of patriots, are they not?

Katharina Blum, played with an almost blank-slate caginess by Angela Winkler, is a regular young woman working as a maid in West Germany. One night at a party she meets the dashing Ludwig (Jürgen Prochnow), whom she allows to take her home. By morning, the police are breaking through her door, accusing her of collaborating with a terrorist. They say Ludwig is an anarchist bank robber, and they believe that Katharina has been his lover for two years and has been using his ill-gotten gains to support her own income. She denies this, and really, outside of some unexplained purchases, there is no real evidence against her. A hand-written quote from Karl Marx they found in one of her books is as close as they've gotten to any kind of corroboration of their conspiracy plot, and even that was given to her by a Dominican monk.

Not that this matters once Katharina's story becomes fodder for the tabloid press. The real collusion is between a sleazy reporter (Dieter Laser) and the Kommissar (Mario Adorf) in charge of Katharina's arrest. The police want her to tell him where Ludwig is hiding, and she refuses to tell him anything. There is an explanation for the unaccounted-for money, as well as an actual lover whom Katharina will not publicly out. Kommissar Beizmenne leaves it to the reporter, Toetges, to fill in the gaps on his own, doctoring quotes and peppering them with dirt, all to make Katharina look like an unpatriotic slut; then, these printed fictions become the official facts. If the truth is blackened in this pursuit of "justice," not to worry. That's what whitewashing is for.

Given the image most Americans have of terrorists, there is a little irony in watching The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum in 2008 and seeing the cop who files the first false report on Katharina dressed in a costume as an Arab sheik. It's too often forgotten that it doesn't require skin tones of a darker hue to commit acts of terrorism. Böll modeled Ludwig's alleged connections on the Baader-Meinhof organization, and Katharina's persecution has roots in libelous articles printed about the author in relation to that group. Baader-Meinhof sought political change in Europe through violent means. They were honest-to-goodness anarchists (albeit organized), and in a fairly new democracy like Germany, terms like "anarchist" and "communist" carried real weight. People were dying for what they believed, and often being punished just for believing it. Right-wing pundits in the U.S. might do well to consider that before they resort to such hot-button tags, either seriously or in jest (the former is dangerous, and the latter even moreso). But then, that ties in exactly with what Schlöndorff and von Trotta were getting at in their film adaptation: why worry about what's really happening when you can bundle it all up in a scapegoat's clothes.

We’d do well to pay attention to what they are saying, too. There are some very literary tags we could put on Katharina's plight in the film. Orwellian comes to mind. So does Kafka-esque. Katharina is brought under charges her accusers refuse to explain to her and given no real recourse to defend herself. Put a hood over her head and ship her down to Cuba, and she'd fit right in at Guantanamo Bay. Sure, she has secrets to hide, but don't we all? At the outset of her persecution, her biggest crime is wanting to keep her private life private. Kommissar Beizmenne suggests that she cooperate with him now, for her own good, because he's a fair man who will treat her right--the sheep's clothing worn by every wolf in a totalitarian state that claims the shepherd's pasture is a democracy.

The mystery that runs through The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is how Ludwig slipped past the police to get out of her apartment. It's not much of a spoiler to say that Katharina has more of a hand in his flight than she lets on, yet it's also not much of surprise that the more she hears of the police's case against him, the less inclined she is to reveal her knowledge. Given their treatment of her, why should she believe them, anyway?

The end result of the false accusations is that by the time Katharina is let off the hook, she has been turned against her oppressors to such a degree, she becomes exactly what they accused her of being. Though Böll's main axe to grind is with the sensationalistic press, it could have just as easily been brought down on the governmental forces that put their boot into Katharina's life. The author and the film directors saw that if you treat people as if they are thieves, they will ultimately steal from you, having nothing left to lose. Escalate the dirty deeds you accuse them of, and the resulting creation will match.

So, don't tell me we couldn't foresee that falsely detaining Muslim men and accusing them of terrorism would create more terrorists, or that wrongly invading another country and forcing them to accept our straw-man version of democracy wouldn't result in that straw man being kicked to the ground. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum made all of that quite clear via a chilling, easy-to-digest mis-en-scene. Isn't it time we all started paying attention?

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