A Salacious Press, an Unchecked Government: Heinrich Böll’s Prescient Fiction

A Salacious Press, an Unchecked Government: Heinrich Böll’s Prescient Fiction

A Salacious Press, an Unchecked Government: Heinrich Böll’s Prescient Fiction

A 1975 film adaptation of his novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum looks how fragile freedom is under democracy.


On May 11, 1972, the Red Army Faction bombed an officers’ club on a US Army base in Frankfurt, Germany, and the next day police buildings in Augsburg and Munich. Like the artists and advertisers who would later monetize the RAF’s seditious zeal, the newspapers preferred a catchier appellation: the Baader-Meinhof Gang. It was, no doubt, easier to bank on the exhilarating cadence and star magnetism of a Bonnie and Clyde–like name, but the RAF also knew a thing or two about branding. They were, after all, an urban guerrilla group with roots in a student movement mobilized by mass-mediated atrocity, and the group’s cofounder and principal scribe, Ulrike Meinhof, was an accomplished journalist. The RAF knew, too, that an explosion could say more than it could do. A bomb, like a headline, wants an audience. More than that: Both want to position their audience. On May 13, a day after the second RAF bombing, the Frankfurter Rundschau paired photographs of the wreckage with a telling headline: “Such attacks only in Vietnam until now.”

For West Germany in the early 1970s, the Vietnam War remained the familiar apex of militant horror. Most West German households had a TV set by the late 1960s, and extensive coverage of the war seemed to prepare both the press and the public with enough tropes of political violence for an oncoming decade of RAF actions. One of the earliest films to depict these insidious enmeshments of media spectacle and state violence was Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), newly restored and rereleased by the Criterion Collection.

Adapted from Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novella of the same name, both the film and its source text vivisect a period that bared the many hypocrisies of a young liberal democracy. In the postwar years, the Federal Republic of Germany had been a beneficiary of American exploits, its economy buoyed by more than a billion dollars from the Marshall Plan and the country dotted with US military bases. The upturn lasted until 1966, when the country’s first major recession drove unemployment to more than a million for the first time since before the war, and West Germany saw growing waves of student demonstrations against police brutality, US imperialism, and the Federal Republic itself.

Lost in tabloid psychologizing and the flattening glamour of myth, the RAF’s founding anti-imperialist principles have largely been obscured by predictable narratives that frame their violence as mania and their mania as (ahistorical) anarchy. By the end of 1977, most of the high-profile members of the first RAF generation had died in Stammheim Prison, where they’d been held before and after their highly publicized trial. Certain details made their purported suicides and suicide attempts cryptic—missing fingerprints, weapons of mysterious provenance—and opened their lives to even more interpretive fervor. A notable crop of German directors worked their malleable legacies into cinema: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979) spun motivated radicals into nervous dilettantes, disarrayed by the logistics of organizing and, simply, living. Von Trotta’s monumental Marianne and Juliane (1981) drew from the lives of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the Stammheim prisoners, and her sister Christiane, threaded with a study of the crushing guilt that cleaved a postwar generation from their parents. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum centers on neither militants nor their radical politics but an ostensibly ordinary person caught between the state and its dissidents. The film spotlights a problem occluded by the story of a newly democratic country: that the continued violence of the Federal Republic was not so disconnected from the fascist dynamics of its still recent past.

The story begins when Katharina Blum, a quiet young woman who works as a housekeeper, goes to a party and meets Ludwig Götten, an alleged bank robber. So timid that friends call her “the nun,” Katharina unexpectedly takes him home that night, charmed to the bone by something only she knows. At dawn, armed police and bureaucrats steal into her building and ram down her front door. Somehow, Götten has vanished, despite gunmen at every exit. There’s only the inscrutable Katharina, enrobed and mid-breakfast, insisting that he left before she woke up. The police don’t believe her, and she is arrested.

All this, so far, is prologue. We know as little about any alleged crimes as Katharina does. She asks her interrogators what her lover has done, what she has done, and is told practically nothing. We know only that Götten has been under surveillance since the opening scene, where a cop feigning a tourist’s roving curiosity slyly films him from a boat. The scene is intercut with the usual shots that signal a political target: a rushed zoom on Götten’s face in grainy black-and-white, overlaid with a marksman’s tell-tale bull’s-eye. It’s only well into the next morning that we glean something of the state’s motive, when police escort Katharina to the station, through a carnival of onlookers and press thronged outside her apartment. While she’s being manhandled into a van, the district attorney gives a statement to a reporter: “We’re dealing here with one or several terrorists acting in cold blood with little regard for human life.”

That speculation, offered as fact, is enough to dispel most of Katharina’s civic freedoms. Her phone is wiretapped, her mail opened, her home searched. Much of this rings familiar: The Stasi’s panoptic reach in East Germany has been well documented and dramatized over the years, but the West could hardly boast ironclad liberties. After the shooting of Rudi Dutschke, a key figure in the student movement, tens of thousands marched through West Berlin in protest on May 1, 1968, part of weeks of demonstrations in over 20 cities. At the end of the month, the West German parliament passed the restrictive and contentious Emergency Laws, but their foundations had been laid years prior. Article 18 of the Federal Republic’s Constitution already made certain rights—freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the privacy of correspondence, among others—explicitly contingent. If an individual exercised any of these rights to threaten the “free democratic basic order,” however tenuously construed, the person would forfeit them.

On January 10, 1972, Heinrich Böll, already an accoladed novelist and essayist, sparked the media inferno that would lead to The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. In an article for Der Spiegel, Böll decried the tabloid maligning of Ulrike Meinhof (a “war of six against sixty million”) and questioned the intensity of public vitriol directed at the RAF. He offered neither explicit defense of Meinhof nor of the RAF’s recourse to violence—his main target was the Bild Zeitung, a popular right-wing tabloid owned by the corporate Springer Press, whose antics will be familiar to anyone who has chanced upon Fox News: inflammatory headlines eked from blatant lies or tenuous facts, and doggedly anti-leftist anything. In a move befitting a publication run by demagogues, the Bild Zeitung co-opted and distorted Böll’s critique, subjecting him to a long campaign of public harassment. The government, too, clocked him as a terrorist sympathizer and placed him under years of surveillance.

When Böll wrote The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum in 1974, many read Katharina as his avatar, another figure thrown into psychological terror for her vague proximity to leftist politics. After Katharina is arrested and briefly imprisoned, the film plays as a kind of doubled procedural, where the usual vicissitudes of a police investigation are twinned with a play-by-play of a reporter manufacturing scandal (for a fictional paper so subtly named the Zeitung). Katharina is interrogated in office after office, surrounded by an omnipresent cast of officials who radiate silent authority. Outside, the city is in festive disguise as it rolls through the annual Carnival, its residents masked and costumed like day-trippers from another film set. Despite the realist aesthetics of Schlöndorff and von Trotta’s adaptation, every now and then Katharina’s surroundings seem to court the absurd.

What’s also absurd, the film suggests, is the imperative to keep on living as usual after the sinister mechanisms of the state become known. The film’s two main antagonists are a cop, Inspector Beizmenne, and a journalist, Werner Tötges, each spearheading his respective operation. Each is rendered as distinctly repulsive: Inspector Beizmenne threatens and screams at a soft-spoken Katharina until his thickly mustached face is magenta from the strain. Within seconds of meeting her, he has slapped a piece of toast out of her hand and asked, “Did he fuck you?” Meanwhile, Tötges lies and manipulates with an almost athletic effervescence.

Against the starkness of Katharina’s timidity and innocence, the depictions of Beizmenne and Tötges veer into hyperbole, but it’s this construction of a guileless woman in love that helps stoke audience outrage at her mistreatment. It also sets up a progression offered in the full title of Böll’s novella, which features a crucial subheading omitted from the film: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum: Or how violence develops and where it can lead. Staged at the novella’s opening but the film’s close, Katharina commits her first and only act of unambiguous physical violence: She shoots and kills Tötges. In the damning causality of that subheading, there is a warning of contingency and chaos. Any layperson, it cautions, even one as politically disinterested and nondescript a citizen as Katharina, can find herself trapped in some ominous momentum that will move her to force.

Böll’s full title also discloses an idea that almost seems too obvious to mention: that any assessment of violence also involves accepting or questioning the arbiters of its legitimacy. Postures of civility and calls for nonviolence tend to collapse it into a monolith for convenient moral condemnation, without regard for its specific perpetrators, their reasons, or the cruel worlds and systems that forge their beliefs. Or, as Böll put it more frankly in another essay from 1972: “Isn’t a Bild Zeitung headline violent?”

Katharina’s experiences of sexual harassment, stalkers, and various state-sanctioned harms invite pity and outrage, but to a certain kind of liberal, whose respectability politics reveals an enduring faith in the rule of law, never incitement to take physical action. Where an instinct for survival might be called self-defense in light of imminent force, acts of violence responding to cumulative harm are rarely framed as justified.

Toward the end of the film, there is a funeral for Tötges. Against the contrived gravitas of a mourning chorus, an extravagant floral wreath and no fewer than four microphones pegged to a podium, a coworker gives a sophistic eulogy before guests and vulturous cameramen: “The shots that killed him didn’t hit him alone. They were aimed at freedom of the press, one of the most precious values of our young democracy,” he proclaims. “Who doesn’t feel the breath of terror, the savagery of anarchy, the violence which is undermining the foundations of our liberal-democratic order, which we are so devoted to?” It’s a nice story, this illusion of the present order as a lapsed ideal wracked by “savagery,” and not one with sanitized terrors in its very design, maintained daily by different forms of violence.

There is, though, a kind of lifeline in the film, something that resists narrative distortion. Like Böll’s novella, the film withholds the details of Katharina’s relationship with Götten, her motives for helping him, and the course of their brief intimacy. The intensity of her feeling is illegible to all observers, be it newspapermen, cops, or bureaucrats, but Schlöndorff and von Trotta fold in something for the viewer alone. Nothing so convenient as hope, more like a sustaining afterglow. Early in the police investigation, the day after her evening with Götten, there is a moment when Katharina is finally alone in her holding cell. Panicked and sweating, she reaches into her bag for a handkerchief to daub her brow, but it unravels, and confetti suddenly cascades down her front like a magic trick, the evening’s secret bliss conjured in a paper shower. She sits in the dark and recalls their slow dance at the party, heads held low and faces pressed together, guarding the lambent thrill no wiretap or conniving journalist can find.

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