Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Auteur Files #12: Adventures in the Criterion Collection Part Four; Or, One of the Two Things You Don't Discuss -- Volker Schlondorff & Marguerite Von Trotta’s THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (Criterion Spine #177)

Volker Schlondorff and Marguerite Von Trotta’s THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM is a very faithful adaptation of Nobel Prize winning author Heinrich Böll's short novel, with both his text and their film serving as social and political commentary on the unrest that occurred in Germany in the early ‘70s. Both works zero in on two specific topics; the governments tactics regarding terrorism and the media’s exploitation of the tumult. This atmosphere of upheaval wasn’t unique to Germany. Indeed, it was a global phenomenon, and the relevance of the ideas expressed in BLUM has lasted far beyond that decade; think of the post-9/11 environment in the United States for just one large example. Thankfully, neither the book nor the movie are shrill in making their point, and for that matter both lack the bluntness that can often afflict political art. This is especially noteworthy in regards to Böll, for the writing of BLUM came with a certain personal axe to grind. He’d penned an editorial taking to task the German media’s actions, specifically their unproven claims that a group of bank robbers were terrorists, and his attempt at clarity found him scorned as naive and accused as a sympathizer. Had the movie disconnected from Böll’s restraint and developed into harsh polemics or self-righteousness, it would have betrayed the writing’s atmosphere of calm and general even-handedness, instead becoming just another angry screed or a display of ideological one-upmanship.

Penguin's edition of Böll's novel

With that said the movie has some nagging problems in its makeup and ultimately falls short of the rank of great cinema. While certainly sincere and suitably complex in its goals and execution, it never succeeds in shaking the feeling that its purpose is to be a positive learning experience for the viewer, something like a lesson from a wise and benevolent teacher. The story’s title character is a modest, very attractive young woman who works as a domestic and lives alone after the breakup of her marriage. Preoccupied with her employment, she’s highly disinterested in the social activities typical to her age group and spurns the frequent advances of male suitors. Until that is, at a party thrown by friends, she meets handsome young Ludwig, a man the film establishes as being trailed by the police, and a man that throws Katharina into the instantaneous euphoria of attraction and desire, a swell of feelings that is, at least to some extent, mutual. Interestingly, the movie begins not with her character but instead immediately establishes the circumstance of Ludwig’s surveillance, featuring an instantaneously tense scene at a ferry, with foreboding music shaping this opening into territory close to a ‘70s Hollywood espionage thriller.

As the pursuit continues, we are then introduced to the all-important party, its revelry just getting started, and that’s where we also meet Katharina, whose lifestyle and temperament are immediately foregrounded when a friend mildly chides her: “Don’t be such a nun”. These party scenes alternate with the tactical cat-and-mouse between Ludwig and the cops, setting up a tug of war between the tension of surveillance and the release of ritual merry-making, at least until Ludwig susses out the scoop and breaks free of their trail, at least momentarily. From there he and his associate, who happens to be an undercover operative, land in a bar where they meet two women en route to the party. After some discussion the ladies invite the boys along. Upon arrival it’s obvious that Blum is a vessel of angelic innocence amidst the frivolity, a state of graceful being that when placed in close proximity to Ludwig’s possible darkness heads straight to the old, reliable trope of Opposites Attract. My, Katharina, just what’s come over you?

After their departure, we are denied any glimpse of their activities; instead, it’s the next morning, and she moves quietly around her apartment in a white terrycloth robe, the placidity leading up to the explosiveness of capture, or more specifically capture denied, for shortly after the chaos of the police’s home invasion it’s revealed that Ludwig is gone; innocence has allowed darkness to escape. This invasion in the name of societal good then swiftly curdles into a betrayal of one person’s rights and dignity. She’s immediately a suspect. They take her into custody, and upon removing her from the building for interrogation at police headquarters the processional is swarmed by media that erupts into frenzy. A personal grievance has now become spectacle, and when a police woman grabs Katharina by the hair, forcing her head up to be photographed, the mutual culpability and collusion between government and media is made coldly and severely overt. Her interrogation holds many facets. For instance, her innocence is shown as distinct from saintliness, and in fact this innocence is put into question, for it is understood that she helped Ludwig escape. The only other way out of the apartment was through the building complex’s air conditioning structure. We are also shown the interrogator’s alternating fascination, incomprehension and exasperation with her nature, and are provided with one of the film’s stronger ideas, the distinction between the machinations of government and business and private life, with the former superseding the latter. Upon being taken to a holding cell and being left alone, Katharina immediately shifts into her role of domestic, cleaning the mess from an extremely foul toilet.

From there we are introduced to the film’s media representative, the character of Toetges, an opportunist that preys upon weakness and exploits the nature of gossip, a spinner of tales and falsehoods. His dandified nature feels like commentary on the nature of media as celebrity, and as such is another aspect of the film with current relevance. We also meet the Blornas, the older couple that employ Katharina, a pair that initially serve as a center of calm amidst the madness, but are eventually revealed as being afflicted with an upper-class naïveté. Upon her release, we encounter Katharina’s perception that everything around her is tainted. This is juxtaposed with the calmness of a brief flashback to her night with Ludwig and the skuzzy luridness of both a letter and an obscene phone call, with their appearance feeling like detritus from Toetges’ ugly activities, which portray her as a criminal in cahoots with Ludwig. As her interrogation continues, the figure of Moerding asserts his presence, at least somewhat; a detective, his attitude of at least partial understanding regarding Katharina’s plight points to the chance of his interceding on her behalf, but unfortunately his cold distance never leaves the realm of observational detachment.

At one point in the interrogation, we are presented with the real possibility of Katharina’s guilt, only to have her explain it away like everything else; this seems to serve the filmmakers as a somewhat manipulative bait-and-switch, possibly shifting some audience members towards identifying with the police, only to have the rug quickly pulled out. Gotcha. This element was also in the novel, but there it felt more like just another wrinkle in the proceedings and additionally as character development regarding Katharina. The way it’s used by Schlondorff and Von Trotta however seems intended to insinuate some level of audience culpability, for the audience is also part of the public, the same public that often believes sensationalized reports in newspapers. This is valid, but it resonates a bit like finger pointing, and it weakens the film.

Each violation of Katharina at the hands of the media and the police wounds her further, but she’s simply unable to resist them, and her slide into cold passivity almost registers as masochistic, behavior that’s in tune with her eventual martyrdom. Along the way we see more of Ludwig, and while his portraiture as a terrorist is ambiguous, he is depicted as a criminal.  That he also features human complexity is admirable of the filmmakers, but raises a question. What about Toetges? Who’s he when he’s not a monster? Every other major character in the film is allowed at least some level of humanity with the exception of Toetges, and this denial poses a lingering problem as the film moves forward. In contrast to her earlier white-robed purity, Katharina is transformed into a black-cloaked vessel of mourning, holding steady in the face of her mother’s death until she breaks down in solitude. After Ludwig’s capture, Katharina agrees to an interview with Toetges, and it’s here that he’s given a moment to shine in all his rancid glory. His statement that no publicity is bad publicity signifies a haywire worship of celebrity, and as he sexually advances on his victim, asking “How about fucking for a start?”, those words happen to be his last. As Katharina is being taken into custody for the killing she briefly crosses paths with Ludwig, who it bares noting is the kind of thin, mussy-haired radical that often ends up on the other side of the political spectrum later in life (not that Katharina would likely care; she’s not ideologically inclined, instead all about emotional bonding, a fact that makes her instance of Love At First Sight believable).

Their short encounter is a joyous one, and it’s here that Blum’s act is seen as not just martyrdom, but as a way for her to spiritually connect to her lover, at least psychically. Reunited and it feels so good. How ‘70s. The film ends with a minister delivering words of eulogy over Toetges’ passing, words that seal his own bogus martyrdom (in the classic sense) to the concept of free speech. Yes, even shit-heels get well attended funerals, and their ends are often transformed into a shallow cause célèbre. This is my first film from either Schlondorff or Von Trotta, and while I would certainly watch more, particularly from Von Trotta (there’s an undercurrent of feminist commentary that I want to credit to her), I must say that my hopes aren’t particularly high. The problem lies more with content than with form. The film is soundly structured and well paced, with some moments of nice camera movement. While the directors are identified as part of the New German Cinema, cinematically BLUM feels far more disciplined and accessible (and less exciting, frankly) than the early work I’ve seen from Herzog, Wenders or Fassbinder. I’m not at all surprised that Schlondorff eventually worked briefly in Hollywood, for as BLUM’s opening scene points out, his sensibility seems quite open to large scale commercial filmmaking. But while the movie’s form is solid it isn’t exceptional, and for this reason the lapses in content stick out all the more.

On one hand there is a gnawing feeling that under the political commitment BLUM has an alternate, somewhat ambiguous function as a vengeance film for liberals. Now I’m a firmly leftist individual, and one that has no particular problem with the concept of filmic revenge. It’s true this type of movie often carries additional ideological baggage that’s difficult to swallow, but in the case of BLUM, there is a dissonance between the film’s large stake in the political high ground and the sticky circumstances of Toetges’ murder. In the book the killing wasn’t explicitly detailed, and while it’s understandable that the filmmakers felt showing Katharina's action was a necessity, it’s presented in a fashion that feels likely to inspire in at least some viewers the messy emotional release that yeah, she’d just offed the slimy bastard. It seems to me that this would have been the perfect time to introduce some shred of real humanity on the part of Toetges, if not decency than at least something that would negate the possibility of his death as cathartic or otherwise pleasurable. However, this thematic discord doesn’t register as the directors wanting to have it both ways, simultaneously making a clear headed observation of societal ills while providing a potentially satisfying act of lawlessness, since it’s obvious that Katharina’s action will result in her loss of freedom. It’s just that the killing causes the film’s more or less admirable goals to suffer. But even in the realm of lofty political/social discourse, there is a problem.

The film is at its most interesting when showing the give and take between the press and the police and at its least appealing when simply documenting the foulness of newspaper smear tactics. It’s abundantly clear that the movie wants the viewer to contemplate and embrace the more positive, angelic aspects of human nature, promoting the censure of media opportunism and the less savory side of our emotional complexity that allows it to proliferate. This gets into the innate stickiness of a truly free society, of which the free press is just one component that includes Pulitzer and Nobel worthy reporting on the spectrum of world experiences along with the foulness of yellow journalism that appeals to our baser impulses. THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM does a very good gob of wishing us to act better, but it hardly acknowledges the constant tug-of-war that is free will, nor does it hold any overt acceptance of the unpleasantness that is the ever-fluctuating price of that freedom. Yes, we should all strive to lessen the victimization of those in the clutches of calculating profiteers and media sensationalists, but after viewing this well intentioned film I was in a far less contemplative state over the good and the bad in my own and others’ behavior and much more inclined to recognize how journalistic heroes and slime-cultivating exploiters are in fact two sides of the same slippery, often expensive coin, a coin of free will that will hopefully always be in currency.

Schlondorff and Von Trotta. I hope that's fake fur there, Marguerite.

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