The film is based on a story by one of Germany’s most famous post-war authors, Heinrich Böll. Set in 1975, in The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum, Böll lays bare how the West German police connive with the media to run roughshod over the rights and reputations of individuals in the name of fighting extremism. For someone like Böll, only too aware of his country’s recent Nazi past, where the press was nothing more than a propaganda tool for the State and the police were a law unto themselves, the dangers of a police force who ignore the rights of the individual and a press who print lies rather than facts and conspire with the police authorities are only too apparent.
The story unfolds during carnival, where Katherina Blum, a shy divorcee, whose nickname is “the nun”, ends up falling in love at first sight with a charming stranger and spending the night with him. Unfortunately for Katherina, the stranger (Jürgen Prochnow) happens to be a wanted man currently under surveillance by the West German police.
The next morning the police – dressed in what looks like costumes from a fancy dress shop that refuse to stock anything but Ned Kelly outfits – raid Katherina’s flat. However, Prochnow’s character has already made his escape. Not surprisingly, the police are not too happy about this and convinced that Katherina must be an old accomplice of Prochnow’s they arrest her. From the start the police inspector’s attitude towards Katherina is dismissive and insulting.
Both the police inspector (Mario Adorf) and the journalist from the tabloid newspaper, die Zeitung (Dieter Laser) have predetermined Katherina’s role from the start and then proceed to tailor the facts to fit their preconceived theories of her being an extremist with anti-clerical views whose flat is a safe house for like-minded radicals to meet up and use as a weapons cache. This theory, based on no evidence whatsoever, hardly makes for good journalism or policing for that matter. To put pressure on Katharina, the press – in the form of the tabloid, die Zeitung – with assistance from the police set in motion a black propaganda campaign against her. They talk to her friends and family, though you wonder why they actually bother talking to anyone when they make up their own quotes when the quotes they do get don’t tell the story they want to tell. Her loser ex-husband now becomes the injured party. Her employer, who talks of her in glowing terms as being clever and responsible, is reported as saying she is cold and calculating and that he wouldn’t put it past her to be of a criminal bent. The journalist even puts words in the mouth of Katherina’s mother who is literally on her deathbed in an intensive ward unit. In order to discredit Katherina completely the newspaper portrays her as a communist and a slag, the latter a tried and tested method used to undermine women from time immemorial from Joan of Arc via Elizabeth I to current day women rights activists in various parts of the developing world.
Katherina’s aunt stands up to the police and protests about the havoc being wrought upon Katherina’s life thanks to the misreporting by the press. The police disingenuously claim it’s nothing to do with them and that the freedom of the press cannot be encroached upon. When her aunt retorts that the freedom and honour of an individual apparently can be, the public prosecutor’s glib reply is that if you don’t keep bad company then the press wouldn’t be bothering you in the first place. However the police have already made a start into delving into the background of Katherina’s family and friends, and are quick to point out to the aunt that her own mother had moved to East Germany of her own accord and that maybe she had other like-minded i.e. communist-leaning friends as well. Ironically one friend is left unscathed by the newspaper which he presumes is because he used to be a former Nazi! Katherina’s employer is also not too happy to have his name and reputation dragged into the affair and heads straight to the chief prosecutor’s house to complain knowing full well that the newspaper can only get such detailed information about the case from the police authorities. As a result of the media stories about her, Katherina’s life is turned upside down and she becomes the target of a hate campaign.
At the end of the film there is a disclaimer, similar to one in Böll’s original short novel: All characters and events are fictitious. Any resemblance to certain journalistic practices are neither intended, nor coincidental but unavoidable. Böll’s target was the Bild-Zeitung, the most popular German tabloid, whose job, according to Katharina, is to murder innocent people’s reputations and honour in order to sell newspapers. The Levinson enquiry would seem to suggest that certain journalistic practices haven’t much changed since the mid-1970s.
In the 1970s West Germany was faced with their own war on terrorism – that of the Red Army Faction. The whole heavy-handed approach that the police and the media take throughout the film is predicated throughout by the fact we are under the impression that Prochnow is some kind of anarchistic terrorist. In the end it turns out he’s just an army deserter who helped himself to some army cash before absconding. The film shows the dangers of using a war on terrorism as an excuse to disregard basic human rights, the rule of law and honest press reporting and to cloak any crime as an act of terror.
Dieter Laser as the journalist is wonderfully repellent throughout the film. He has no morals, no honour and no respect for the truth or any concern for the damage and hurt that he wrecks on other people’s lives. When he meets Katharina at the end of the film, he blames the paper for misquoting him and tells her she should thank him for making her famous and that if she works it, she can make a lot of money from it all – the dawning of the age of non-celebrity.
In the epilogue the film shows how the term press freedom is bandied about to justify the harmful and malicious practices of newspapers such as those portrayed in the film. Any attack on press freedom is seen as an attack on democracy itself. Freedom of the press is after all one of the main pillars of any self-respecting democracy but should that freedom enable journalists to tell lies, invent stories, collude with the police, destroy lives and knowingly misrepresent events. Surely a free press does not mean journalists are free to do what they like with a complete disregard to truth and the consequences that salacious and fallacious reporting may have on the individuals in question. With the recent hacking scandal, the demise of the British News of the World, police allegedly being paid off by newspapers and the raft of new laws thanks to the war on terror, it would seem that The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum hasn’t lost any of its relevance 40 years after it was made.