Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta | Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead

the nun
by Douglas Messerli
Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta (writers and directors, based on a novel by Heinrich Böll) Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead) / 1975

By intentional coincidence this past weekend, I watched Volker Schlöndorff’s and Margarethe von Trotta’s 1975 adaptation of Nobel Prize winner, Heinrich Böll’s novel, itself a kind of scree against the German tabloid Bild-Zeitnung and their fanning of a kind of mass hysteria through their coverage of the Baader-Meinhof gang. In reaction to his original article, the tabloid labeled Böll as a terrorist sympathizer, resulting, as Amy Taubin writes in the liner notes to the Criterion re-issue of this film, in “police harassment, searches, and wiretaps.” To counter the yellow newspaper’s dishonest reports, Böll shot back with his wonderful fiction about a young housekeeper, Katharina Blum, who innocently spends a night and falls in love with a possible terrorist whom the police are following.

        By the next morning, the young woman, whom her friends call “The Nun” (presumably because of lack of promiscuous behavior) is arrested, brutally handled, and subjected to intense questioning. Her house is ransacked, and nearly all of her personal friends are contacted and subjected to the same intrusive actions. Even worse, the police work hand-in-hand with the tabloid—simply called “The Paper” in the film—exchanging documents and information, which suddenly splashes the young Katharina (wonderfully performed by Angela Winkler) across its front pages, while accusing her of collaboration with terrorism and labeling her as a whore. Even the prosperous attorney and his wife for whom she works—well known to the police force—are tracked down on vacation and scrutinized by the media. “The Paper” illegally breaks into the hospital room where Katharina’s mother is dying in an attempt to get a deathbed statement. When she says nothing of importance, they make it up. All of this Katarina suffers with a quiet and patient strength, comprehending the necessity, while abhorring their abusive methods and the newspaper intrusion into her life.

      Throughout, she speaks the truth, we are led to believe, about everything except the relationships of the men in her life, which with great dignity and strength of purpose, she refuses to reveal. And it is this feminist aspect of her being that helps us to completely sympathize with her plight. Her former husband, only too ready to be interviewed and comment of his previous wife, indicts himself in his act; we can clearly perceive why Katharina has left him. Another man, with whom she has been having an affair, refuses to come forward and rescue her. The country home to which she has given her the key, has now become the hiding place of the so-called terrorist Ludwig (Jürgen Prochnow). Despite hate letters and salacious offers for sex, however, Katharina remains firm in her convictions: she is convinced that the police have no right to intrude upon her personal and inner life. Amy Tubin has expressed the issue rather nicely:

                           The men she encounters react to her sense of self-worth as a
                           challenge to their masculinity. When she refuses to play their
                           game, they become enraged and intent on destroying her. The
                           one thing that can be counted on to unite the various men in
                           this film across class and political lines is the need to keep 
                           women in a subservient position. In the eyes of the law, 
                           Katharina is guilty, first and foremost, of the crime of being 
                           a woman. That she’s a woman who refuses to allow the 
                           patriarchy to determine her value compounds her guilt.

I would only argue that, one man, the presumed terrorist—found guilty even before the film has begun (the very first scene reveals he is being secretly filmed and followed)—has given her something none of the others have, a word she insists remain in the testimony she is forced to sign: tenderness
     Eventually, she is freed and the “terrorist” found to be only a slightly confused thief. Were the film to end there, it would have brilliantly made its point, that a culture fixated upon threats ultimately turns its own citizens into terrorists as well. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent filmmakers felt they had to carry Böll’s fiction forward to its melodramatic, if psychologically rewarding, end. Katharina accepts an interview with the horrific reporter, Werner Tötges (Dieter Laser). Carrying a gun, she shoots him down, and the movie ends with a horribly ironic, if inevitable, funeral with Tötges (and “The Paper”) being eulogized as a hero who has died for the cause of the freedom of the press. Along with some critics, such as Roger Ebert, I agree that this ending undercuts the character the film has established, turning her into simply another victim instead of the strong figure she has been represented as. With the reporter’s murder, “The Paper” and police can continue to proclaim their empty paranoia, destroying others whom they inexplicably “suspect.” The true terror of government and media intrusions into personal lives is justified in her final act, and can now put her away where her story can no longer have any significance.

 Los Angeles, August 12, 2013

This 1975 work clearly calls up the illegal public revelations of figures such as WikiLeaks head Julian Assange, Bradford Manning, and, most explicitly, Edmund Snowden. Snowden has attempted to warn us that through the vast NSA “haystack” of billions of emails, telephone messages, and other everyday communications anyone might possibly be perceived as a terrorist, and, under quick investigation, perceived to be involved with terrorism simply because of suspicion. Writing in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Andrew Liepman, predictably mocked any of us who might fear of government intrusion into our lives in an article titled “What Snowden got wrong: Everything”:

                        The government isn’t interested in your phone call with your
                        aunt. Unless she’s a terrorist.

In the context of the movie I’ve described above, however, almost anyone might be suspected of terrorism. What about an accidental meeting? An incident like Katharina’s “one-night” encounter? I am a publisher, focusing on international writing. What if I get an order from someone from another country (or from the US for that matter) who happens to be a terrorist? Must I personally know everyone, even their moral values, with whom I communicate? When does one suddenly become a “needle,” as Snowden suggested, or, worse yet, a kind of “nettle,” a twisted weed of irritation.

     Soon after 9/11 a friend of mine, born and raised in Pakistan, was suddenly hounded by the CIA or other government figures who “visited” him even at a university classroom where he teaches. His American girlfriend was similarly “stalked.” The owner of my office building, described how he and his secretary were forced to intervene in the case of one of their tenants—who they had long known—when he was illegally arrested, imprisoned for a few weeks, evidently, because he had never sought out US citizenship!

       With hundreds of Facebook “friends,” many of whom I’ve never met, am I and others like me in danger of simply communicating, through photographs and general information, if one of these unknown readers happened to be suspected of terrorism? I want to answer Mr. Liepman by reminding him that most of us, these days, live not in a world of domestic isolation, writing our aunts and grandmothers only, but often communicate on an international level, sometimes (particularly on the internet) with people from all over the world. My six blogs (one each on fiction, poetry, film, theater, travel, and US cultural masterpieces) receive visitors—for which I’m very pleased—from across the planet.

      Finally, I have one aunt who, although she is not a terrorist, is an evangelical Christian who has written some pretty awful things, in the past, about President Obama (she is convinced, for instance, he was not born in the US). Although I no longer communicate with her, might I be in trouble if I did? Her kind of limited vision of the world might be seen by some to be as dangerous as that of an outspoken critic of our country. What happened to Katharina Blum in Schlöndorff’s and von Trotta’s moving film, might easily occur again. And yellow journalists, print and digital, are only too ready to help destroy the lives of innocents. One need only recall the young Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi,* who, missing from his Providence, Rhode Island room, suddenly was mistakenly rumored by Reddit and other gossip Facebook posters to have been the second bomber at the Boston Marathon, reporters soon after camping out on his family’s lawn in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Whether because of these accusations or not, Sunil’s body was found in the waters off India Point Park in Providence on April 23rd, a victim, evidently, of suicide.

 *There are several recountings of this on the internet and in print. See, for example, The New York Times, April 25, 2013.

Los Angeles, August 12, 2013

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