Volker Schlöndorff’s absorbing adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel
When a young woman spends the night with an alleged terrorist, her quiet, ordered life falls into ruins. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum portrays an anxious era in West Germany amid a crumbling postwar political consensus. Katharina, though apparently innocent, suddenly becomes a suspect, falling prey to a vicious smear campaign by the police and a ruthless tabloid journalist that tests the limits of her dignity and her sanity. Crafting one of the most accessible and direct works of 1970s political filmmaking, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta deliver a powerful adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel, a stinging commentary on state power, individual freedom, and media manipulation that is as relevant today as when it was released.
The last few years have seen a swing in American politics, from a time of hope to a time of fear. We’ve seen abuse of power, the crippling of institutions, undermining of the press, at the expense of our personal freedoms and the truth. This toxicity has often bled into the lives of individuals, caught up in larger political plays, conflicts, and suspicion. The titular Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler), and her plight, could very well unfold in these disconcerting times.
After attending a party, Blum goes home with a man named Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow, Das Boot), finds herself arrested the following morning. She finds out he is a suspected terrorist, and by association she is now under suspicion by the state. An overzealous Agent Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) begin interrogation of Katharina, but find no evidence in her past or present to tie her to Ludwig’s agenda, but this does not stop them from twisting some of the truths to fit their agenda. As this unfolds, a reporter (Dieter Laser), delves into her life determined to uncover what the police have seemingly missed, instinct and ambition driving his efforts. This assault on two fronts bleeds into Katharina’s life, her friends and family co-opted, corrupted, and misquoted, further fueling the fire that consumes her life.
Based on a novel by Heinrich Böll (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum), the story is rooted in the paranoia that gripped 1970s Germany as far-left groups clashed with the political establishment. If you’re unfamiliar with that era, it also provided some of the backdrop to Luca Guadagnino’s recent reworking of Suspiria. We see the warping of reality by both government entities and the media, to sell an agenda or a story. The leveraging of suspicion and fear to whip up support, while rights are lost in the name of guarding our freedoms. All disconcertingly familiar ideas. Schlöndorff builds a quiet fury throughout, smartly maintaining focus on the personal fallout, and in doing so drives home the relevance to these events to us all.
Criterion present a release sourced from an all new 4K restoration of the film, one overseen by Schlöndorff, along with producer Eberhard Junkersdorf. The transfer is vibrant, with strong colors, depth, and detail. The image does see to lose some of the detail/depth in the darker scenes, but this aside, it’s a pretty flawless presentation. Extra features are:
- Interview from 2002 with directors Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta: Archival interview wherein the pair discuss the political and social backdrop that inspired the film. It’s a great addition to put the piece into context, while also revealing some interesting tidbits about the making of the film
- Interview from 2002 with director of photography Jost Vacano: Another archival piece, one that focuses on the cinematography of the film. Nicely balances technical aspects with thematic intent
- Excerpts from a 1977 documentary on author Heinrich Böll: Glad to see some extras that give time to the author and novel from which the film was adapted from. The interview largely focuses on events that inspired the story, and the process by which the book was brought tot he big screen
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Amy Taubin (Blu-ray only): In the liner booklet that also contains stills, and details on the restoration of the film
The Bottom Line
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum may have emerged from 1970s Germany, but the political plays, median maneuvering, and character assassination feel very timely. This adds further weight to what is already a taut, effective and chilling thriller, one given a quality treatment by Criterion.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is available via Criterion now