Film Film Reviews

Fake News in ‘70s West Germany – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

FAKE NEWS is rampant. It pollutes the internet, hanging like a thick, dark cloud that shrouds the line between truth and fiction – between honest journalism and falsifying drivel.

The modern breeding grounds for such damaging pollution – Facebook, Twitter and other social media – allow these articles to be read, shared and, most worryingly, believed with just a simple click.

Polarisation, ignorance and division are just a few troubling by-products. Yet fake news and dishonest journalism have been a reality – and a scourge – long before Trumpian politics and clickbait media.

Directors Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta tackled the issue back in 1975 with their adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s controversial novel – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.

This New German Cinema film – showing on November 26 as part of the BFI’s States of Danger and Deceit season – provides a blistering portrayal of such misuse of power and influence.

Angela Winkler (Clouds of Sils Maria) plays a young lady named Katharina who gets caught in the middle of a scandal after spending the night with a suspected anarchist.

Under an unrelenting spotlight, Katharina’s reputation is pulled apart by corrupt policemen and unethical journalists.

This stripping of Katharina’s honour reaches unashamedly into the political and personal. ‘Was she a whore?’ is the line of one journalist looking to construct a suitably villainous narrative for Katharina’s personal life. Katharina, referred to by friends as a ‘nun’ for her usually holy behaviour, is soon painted as a promiscuous money-grabber by the yellow journalists.

The press and police trade notes of offence on Katharina as they systematically try to break her down – in private and public. They reach out to her family, her ex-husband and employees trying to find seeds that they can sow into controversy. When they come up with them, they are all too willing to fabricate stories.

Like the treatment of current day public figures, nothing is sacred when it comes to selling tabloid news. This means words are twisted, intimidation is frequent, and phones are wiretapped – a reminder of the Watergate scandal emerging a few years earlier in America.

As one character states: ‘It’s their very business to rob innocent people of their honour. Often take their lives. Otherwise nobody would buy their papers.’

The campaign against Katharina also extends to finding tenuous links to socialism. In Cold War divided Germany, this smearing is a safe bet for the obliteration of a person’s character. All it takes is the knowledge that a relative is willingly living in East Germany for her to be labelled a comrade of the hammer and sickle.

The camera often locks in on a close-up of Katharina’s gentle and resolute face. It is a far cry from the images of a reckless and aggressive Katharina plastered on the front page of the papers. This is a layer of character assassination that is even more relevant today in our image obsessed culture.

The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum is rebellious and disruptive filmmaking, held together by a terrific lead performance by Winkler. It gives a defiant middle finger to dishonest journalism, including a violent and reverberating ending.

The film has a bold and damming tone, pointing the finger squarely at tabloid paper Bild-Zeitung. Nowadays it could, sadly, any from an array of print or online medias.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is a timely reminder of the battle for truth that we must continue to fight for.

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