in media res

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum(1975) and the media by aristea F

I am here referring to the Volker Schloendorff and Margarehthe von Trotta film and not the 1974 novelle by Heinrich Böll. Katharina, a woman that leads a quiet life, meets an anarchist -evidently linked to the Red Army Faction- and takes him to her house where they make love. After he escapes, her life is completely destroyed by the journalists and the police investigations.

Part of the New German Cinema of the 1960s, the film is the work of German filmmakers from the left who “challenged the Establishment history of the terrorist movement” (Hoerschelmann, 2001 : 86). I will not go into the theme of the imagined terrorism and the hysterical reaction of the state. I am more interested in the dualism ‘virgin-whore’ as that is represented in the film and the ideas of gender in general.

The ‘lost honour’ prompts to the loss of virginity since in patriarchical societies a woman is honoured when a virgin. In these societies the ‘honour’ of the woman has to be guarded by the men of the family, father and brothers so she can be handed intact to her husband. She may cease being a virgin but, once sex is performed within the marriage, her ‘honour’ is not lost. Katharina is divorced. She has an affair with a ‘gentleman’ whose identity she keeps secret. She has sex with the anarchist because she falls in love with him. She is a woman in charge of her sexuality. But she is nevertheless called ‘the nun’, not because she is prudent or cellibate, but because she refuses to have her bottom pinched or generally being touched be strangers during her work as a waitress. She is thus not a ‘whore’. One of her previous employers states that a waitress should look like a whore but not be one. He clearly puts Katharina in the honoured side of the divide.

Until the media and the state come. One of the first things a policeman tells her when the special forces have entered violently into her home, is ‘put something on, you do not want to give bad impressions about you’. And she responds, ‘I am in my home’, resisting verbally but not practically. throughout the film she is spitted upon, pushed around, beaten, mishandled and victimised. She always resists verbally, calling the media murderers because of their intrusion in her life and the effects of that. As soon as every intimate detail of her personal life is exposed, her ‘honour’ is lost. Her dignity as a citizen is shattered by means of sexualisationin the same way rape is used as a weapon of war. She becomes less than a citizen, less than a gendered person, she becomes the ‘whore’ in german common opinion. So the film does not direclty address the subordination of women, but it does it indirectly through the symbolic feminization of the citizen in a paternalistic state. This way the audience can easily identify with Katharina, she is the apolitic man or woman next door. In a paternalistic, authoritative state, everyone in the hands of the state-controlled media can turn into the state’s whore.

But after all, Katharina is not an academic, not middle class like the ones she work for, and she is not a marxist. The eminent middle class politicians, lawyers and so on, whatever their past, marxist or nazi, are not hunted down in the end. Katharina is used by all of them and her only means of ethical survival is to get a life for a life. Ultimately, her ‘honour’ is regained when, at the verge of being raped by the main journalist, she inverts the symbolic phallus that has caused her such distress, and shoots him.

aristea 08


2 Comments so far
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I haven’t come across that film yet – although I have heard a lot of the two filmmakers. What year does it play in?

Comment by meandomedar

hey anne, they have it in the library. It was released in 1975. Have you watched M. von Trotta’s ‘Rosa Luxemburg’? I’m going to watch it next.

Comment by aristea F

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