Friday, July 29, 2011

#177: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

(Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe Von Trotta, 1975)

I wish The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum seemed dated, foreign, and overblown. Instead, it's entirely relevant and horrifying, a snuff film for the media age. Constructed around a woman who spends a night with an alleged terrorist, the film charts the police and paparazzi as they slowly destroy the woman's life. The film balances issues of a male-dominated society and a fascist mindset that emphasizes guilt before innocence. Both themes are presented in a clean way that avoids overbearing statements, but this might be less because of a soft hand and more because the themes are so relevant to today that the movie can't possibly cross the line.

This is particularly easy to emphasize at the moment, when terrorism is front and center in the longview and Murdoch's phone-hacking scandal has been all over the media in the last few months. Both of these current issues are entirely relevant to the film - one in which reporters casually make up quotes to sell papers and policemen leap to judgment on terrorist-related cases and refuse to follow the law. It would be great if the movie seemed a little too black and white in these regards - perhaps the journalists would come across as too cynical, or the policemen as too eager to rush to judgment. Instead, the film's villains play as real today as ever.

There are two other significant elements of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum which enrich the film and keep it feeling so relevant. The first is the fact that - despite all of the horrible things being done to her that shouldn't be done - Blum does in fact have something to hide. That she allowed the terrorist to escape and find refuge makes the film much more complex. It reminded me a bit of Dead Man Walking, where Sean Penn's death row inmate actually did murder two people in cold blood, yet we are asked to sympathize with his cause anyway. Had that film been about an innocent man on death row, it would have avoided the most elemental question about the death penalty: regardless of a man's guilt or innocence, can we really as a society be responsible for taking a life? While Blum's crimes do not come close to the level of murder, the fact that she is not totally innocent takes the focus off of her experience and shifts it back to the system. This isn't an innocent person being targeted, but it is a person, with the same weaknesses and uncomfortable truths that everyone else has. Is the small safety that would be gained by destroying her - not to mention the entertainment and profit - worth the moral price we pay?

The second significant element is the sexism Blum experiences, both from the police and eventually from the faceless masses who send her harassment through the mail. Often, when a film deals in sexism to this degree it is identified as a film about sexism. This can be unfair, not because films about sexism aren't worth making but because work that doesn't settle into the default (in America, this means the white male experience; in the rest of the world, it at least means male) can be so easily pigeonholed. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum isn't about sexism any more than it's about infatuation or making a true connection with a person. Instead, the film depicts sexism in its natural habitat, the acts and judgments evolve out of realistic situations in ways that would effortlessly occur in real life. The police in the film are sexist and the men who send hateful letters to Blum use sexual attacks and the media plays up Blum's failures in a conventionally female role because Blum is a woman, and that's what these people do.

Anyway, I've probably gone on too long. This is a really good movie that I hope stops being relevant tomorrow and some day my son can look back at it and see what all the fuss was about and laugh.

No comments:

Post a Comment