films and documentaries The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) is an early film that addresses the Baader-Meinhof era. Based on a noted novel by Nobel Laureate Heinrich Boll, the film focuses on the repressive atmosphere created by the sensationalist press in Germany.

The book and film were produced at the height of the Baader-Meinhof-era and as such are remarkable documents of the time. The story follows a maid who spends the night with a radical bank robber and possible terrorist (though she was unaware of it at the time). She helps him evade police custody after their night together. After the police question here, the press hounds her and essentially ruins her life.

With 30 years of perspective, one can easily look at this film (and the source book) as perfect reflections of what was going on in the mind of leftists in Germany at the time. Because the horrific bombings and murders in the spring on 1972, few leftists could realistically offer any type overt support for the activities of the group. But the overbearing and oppressive response to the Baader-Meinhof Gang by the hated Springer Press and the German state provided leftists an opening for taking up the cause without directly supporting or endorsing the activities of the terrorists.

Unfortunately this leaves us with a film and a book that essentially set up a straw-man argument. Katharina Blum, the young maid, IS almost completely innocent. Save for her assisting her new love evade the police, she does essentially nothing wrong to cause all of the grief that is heaved upon her. It would be virtually impossible not to feel sorry for her. And the film (and book) even manage to ultimately make her new boyfriend just a simple safe robber and not quite the dangerous radical that the police claimed he was.

It’s a quite effective film, but I’m left wishing for a film about many of the leftists who provide their homes, their money, and their cars over the years to various members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, knowing full well who they were and what they were accused of. It would be interesting to explore the dynamic between these people, and the grateful urban guerrillas, who would nevertheless quickly blackmail some of these helpers into letting them stay longer because the helpers were now “aiding terrorism.” And it would be interesting to explore what went on in the mind of the man who ultimately turned in Meinhof to the police while she was hiding in his home. Compared to these people, Katharina Blum is the Virgin Mary.

When Blum kills the Bild-like reporter after he effectively destroys her life, it must have felt good to audiences sick of the years of sensational right-wing screeds from the hated Bild newspaper, it must have felt good for Heinrich Boll to write the scenario, and for the brilliant Volker Schlorndorff to direct it. But, with three decades of hindsight, it seems a bit unfair to create a false scenario, and then get all sanctimonious about that scenario.

The Criterion Collection of the DVD is terrific (look for a shout out to this website in the liner notes). It features a commentary by Schlorndorff and lots of extras. Really a terrific package for one of the most essential movies of the Baader-Meinhof era.