It’s time for World Cinema Wednesday. Today, I’d like to discuss Margarethe Von Trotta’s The Last Honor Of Katharina Blum because it serves as an interesting example of a screen adaptation.The protagonist in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum imposes a problematic transition from page to screen, however, because the audience is placed to identify with a criminal. This poses a problem for filmmakers who are burdened with the dilemma of encouraging audience identification. Thus, the main character and by extension the plot must undergo sharp changes.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is based upon the novel by Heinrich Boll, the film chronicles the unraveling of the female protagonist who is demonized by her romantic association with a known criminal, Ludwig; her persecution within the press drives her to murder. The largest problem to captivating sympathy for the Katharina in adapting Boll’s novel is the narrative style; the narrative is written in a distant, un-named first person who reveals the story and characters in the form of confidential reports.
The reader is told immediately that Katharina is a killer and the rest of the novel unfolds like a mystery as the reader must guess why Katharina was motivated to take such action. This method of narration adds an air of authority to the narrator but ultimately runs the risk of removing reader intimacy with the characters and also avoids placing judgment on any actions of the character – the reader is left watching the characters as though through a one-way interrogation mirror, inferring the events and judging for themselves.
Thus, the entire novel is veiled in ambiguity, never taking a stance upon the ethical violations of Katharina’s action nor the actions of the press which irrevocably damaged her life. Furthermore, this type of narration ensures that all the action of the characters happens off page; the climax of the novel itself, Katharina’s murder, unfolds rather quickly, leaving the rest of the novel steeped in resolution. In adapting to the screen, this narrative style isolates the viewers from the characters and makes for a rather slow, uneventful film.
The film adaptation of Boll’s novel follows the events of the novel closely, but the film abandons the narrative style completely- bringing the events to life rather than explain them. The film chronicles the events of the novel from Katharina’s meeting with Ludwig, her subsequent investigation and smear campaign up until the murder of Totges; thus, the mystery element of the novel is removed and viewer is positioned directly to identify with Katharina as they journey with her during the events which lead to her unraveling- watching Katharina transform from a polite girl into a murderess.
The linear progress of the films events also add more depths to Katharina’s character as the viewer is not kept at a distance from her emotions. Indeed, the film expounds upon the Katharina’s romanticism as she fondly flashes back toward her happiness with Ludwig along with her agony as the viewer watches the horror on her face at the sight of her apartment in shambles and the sadness as she tears up after her mother’s death. These scenes deviate from the novel’s description of Katharina as cold and unfeeling in order to gain audience sympathy. Also, the added layers of Katharina’s character serve to remove the ambiguity of the novel.
By focusing on Katharina’s suffering from the smear campaign, film takes a firm stance on the lack of ethics posed by the press and the press’s collaboration with the police during Katharina’s investigation. Whereas the novel only implies that the press fabricates statements, the film outright states it, choosing to vilify the press rather than Katharina, herself. This positions the viewer not only to sympathize with Katharina but also implies that the murder of Totges, whose character is also transformed in order to have the audience revile him, may be justified.
Totges’ blasé reaction to the damage he done to Katharina and his sexual advances make him more of a villain than the novel because the audience hears the words from him rather than being retold from Katharina. However, the suggestion that the murder may be justified does not alienate the audience because by the end of the film, the criminal is punished for her crime. Yet, although Katharina is arrested, the final scene of the film does not end with her in prison explaining her murder to Blorne like the novel. Indeed, due to the focus of Katharina the Blornes’ characters are heavily reduced and their downward financial spiral is never revealed in the film.
The film instead chooses to end on the funeral of Totges who is heralded as a hero of free speech. This commentary acts as irony given that the reporter is responsible for the destruction of Katharina’s life and often fabricated stories in order to booster sales. Thus, the film seems to question how far should the sacred liberty be allowed to extend, suggesting that perhaps in some instances limiting the press is in fact for the greater good.
Would I Recommend It?
Only if you like art films; the movie is very slow and the resolution is very different from Hollywood.
*All images not captioned are screen-caped from the film*