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DVD Review
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
by Jürgen Fauth

Guide Rating -  

Sleeping with Terrorists

So, imagine you're a sad and lonely divorcee, working as a maid, when you finally decide to let loose at the carnival. You fall head over heels for a dashing stranger. The next morning, a SWAT team crashes into your apartment because, alas, it turns out the dashing stranger was a terrorist. Soon, every tabloid in the country, not to speak of the ever-hungry TV news networks, are dragging your name through the mud.

That's the premise of Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta's 1975 film. Set during the tumultuous Cologne carnival in the stormy seventies, when Germany was plagued by the Baader-Meinhoff brand of terrorism, the story is based on an angry novel by Heinrich Böll. The Nobel Prize winner was himself the victim of vicious smear campaign by Germany's BILD-Zeitung, a tabloid famous for an average sentence length of three words. "Katharina Blum," more polemic than novel, was Böll's revenge.

The film is well-cast. Jürgen "Das Boot" Prochnow, Dieter Laser, and ubiquitous ham Mario Adorf ("The Tin Drum") play the dreamboat terrorist, the sleazy reporter, and the authoritative cop in charge of an almost Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Between them, they grind up more than just Katarina's honor. In the title role, Angela Winkler thrusts her open, vulnerable face into the fray with astounding hidden resources of honesty and strength. Together, these actors manage to give Böll's abstract tragedy a compelling human specificity.

The cynicism of the film's epilogue, when newspapermen with blood on their hands sanctimoniously rattle on about the freedom of the press seems farcical until you remember that Fox News advertises "fair and balanced reporting" with the same straight face, that the New York Post recently portrayed international diplomats with rodents' heads, and that Germany's BILD-Zeitung is still the best-selling paper in the country. Böll's points about privacy, the power of the media, and the dangers of an abusive press working hand in glove with government authority are as pressing as ever.

The Criterion DVD features a new digital transfer, interviews with the filmmakers and cinematographer, and excerpts from a documentary about Heinrich Böll.

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