14 May 2006

A script for our times

One can’t always reduce the value of a book to what it says or to its appeal to the times but there are still lessons to be learned from Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974). Katharina, the protagonist, is driven to a final act of desperation after she is arrested for sheltering Ludwig, a deserter who has robbed two Bundeswehr payrolls. After extensive surveillance, police stage an armed raid on her flat only to find that the suspect has escaped. They search the flat, interrogate, intimidate and harass Katharina, and tap her phone. In collusion with the authorities, the Springer-like tabloid press smears Katharina and her family in its pages as communist and anarchist sympathizers, a campaign that results in her ostracism and in her ill mother’s death.

The range and depth of characters on either side are subtle and the narrative is problematized but our sympathies lie with Ms. Blum as the author intended. “Should the description of certain journalistic practices bear any resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung,” Böll’s epilogue ran, “this is neither intentional, nor accidental, but unavoidable.” Following his objections to the mass hysteria fanned by Bild-Zeitung in its coverage of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the tabloid accused Böll of being a terrorist sympathizer. Like Katharina Blum, he was subjected to a campaign of innuendo, humiliation, suspicion and interrogation.

Film directors Volker Schlöndorff’s and Margarethe von Trotta’s 1975 screen version of the book is a powerful feminist examination of the interplay of power, ideology and patriarchy. This is not just a good guys-bad guys drama staged over the cold war ashes of east and west Germany. The frightening things is that these things could and do happen nowadays. Luedig, the Axel Springer-like owner of Die Zeitung in the film, delivers a funeral oration on the freedom of the press with clichés about civilization and its enemies that would not have been out of place in a speech by Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally or in a recent White House or Pentagon briefing.

The film is timely. The liberal-democratic state’s misuse of power and its collusion with mass media’s manipulation of the truth to override the rule of law and individual rights speak to all of us who have followed with some anxiety the post 9/11 triumph of “security” concerns over human rights. If, as Merleau–Ponty asserted, the discourse of the political is violent, the invasiveness and pervasiveness of mass media violates us. At the same time as it inures us to violence it overexposes us to it. The consumer is the one who’s consumed. As the film subtitle reads “Or How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead.” A lesson, indeed, to all of us and well worth learning through Böll’s prose and through Angela Winkler’s astonishingly graduated performance as Katharina Blum.

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