The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

Failing to Act, Acting to Fail: The Films of Margarethe von Trotta (by Emily Watlington)

“How is it that some people decide the fate of others?” asks Rosa Luxemburg in the opening of Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 biopic of the anti-war, anti-capitalist philosopher and activist.  Sub “others” for ‘women’ and this question is everywhere in von Trotta’s work.  By way of factual and fictional tales of women revolutionaries like Hannah Arendt, von Trotta poses questions about agency that have long been at the heart of feminist thought, such as: how can women enact change without resorting to ‘masculinist’ behavior, like aggression and domination?  How can women act as willful subjects while distinguishing their own desires from learned ones like internalised misogyny?

Neither viewers nor investigators can discern whether the eponymous protagonist of von Trotta’s first feature, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) [1], is an innocent victim or a sly conspirator.  Blum (Angela Winkler) rarely speaks for herself, and this is not because the filmmaker denies her subjectivity, but because she is being interrogated by the police and slandered by the press.  Any information she gives is fuel for damnation.  She becomes an object of suspicion after spending the night with a man, Ludwig Götten (Jürgen Prochnow), a radical bank robber and alleged terrorist who is being followed by the police.  They wait outside her home for him, but somehow he escapes the building anyway.  Did he take advantage of her for a hideout, then sneak out in the night?  Or was she an ally who helped him escape?  A transcribed quotation from Marx found in her flat is presented as damning evidence (this is, after all, post-war West Germany), although she claims someone else left it in her book.  Is Blum acting with her own agenda, or is her circumstance the product of actions by men?  Viewers get to know Blum only through the law enforcement’s interpretation of her few words and the interviews that the press and police carry out with her friends and family, never from Blum herself.  She is cast as shy and prudish: the investigators think it uncharacteristic that she would spend the night with a man she’d just met and so suggest an alternative agenda.  Eventually, Blum phones Götten to make sure he’s OK.  They have fallen in love.  She was an ally after all, and is housing him in the country home she shared with her ex-husband.  But her phoneline has been tapped: this leads to both of their arrests.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

Blum performs the assumptions that other people have of her– that she is passive, shy, prudish, and a victim – to allow her to revolutionise, quietly.  Though she is not fully successful in her efforts, since both of them are caught, she is able to make those around her rethink their assumptions about her and women in general.  This evokes something of Jack Halberstam’s concept of ‘radical passivity’[2]– the way that seeming inaction can produce change.  Blum’s apparent passivity allows her to revolutionise in enemy sightlines.  Von Trotta’s narrative strategies work in a similar way: by overtly privileging the voices of the all-male law enforcement and press over that of Blum’s, she draws our attention to the trope of woman as passive object.  This cinematic convention is strategically retooled rather than uncritically internalised.  In fact, though Götten is seen as the radical agent of much of the plot, he is written as a flat character with few lines: the love object.  Blum is no doubt an object of fascination, one onto which men project their own narratives, but over time she is revealed to be enigmatic less because she is a blank canvas and more because her complex thoughts and innerworkings are deliberately withheld.

Still, the film poses the question: to what extent did Blum act out of political conviction, and to what extent did she act on the desires of the man she loved?  The Lost Honour, along with the other three films that appear in the ICO’s current touring programme The Personal is Political – The Films of Margarethe von Trotta, explores the relationship between politics and love (both romantic and familial, especially sisterly and motherly).  Blum, I’d like to think, falls in love with Götten because of and not in spite of his politics.  It’s also worth pointing out that to characterise someone as lesser for acting out of love for another rather than political conviction would be pretty masculinist.  This is exactly what Rosa Luxemburg’s comrade and romantic partner, (until he cheats on her) Leo Jogiches, suggests when he asks her, “Do you want to be a mother or a revolutionary?” He warns her that, “a child makes you fearful,” suggesting less that caretaking will detract time away from her political organising, since they can afford help, and more that it will make her emotional investment in the anti-war movement too personal to be productive.  This is a double-standard.  Luxemburg later remarks that for Jogiches romantic love and work are inseparable, which he uses to justify his cheating.

In The German Sisters (1981; also called Marianne and Julianne), we see one possible consequence of a mother heeding Jogiches’s advice.  Marianne (Barbara Sukowa) turns revolutionary, abandoning her son in order to save the so-called Third World.  The film is based on the true lives of Christiane and Gudrun Ensslin (Gudrun was a co-founder of the West German, far-left militant group called the Red Army) as they set out to repair the relationship that one sister’s activism has ruined: Gudrun’s militancy brought shame to her family and she neglected her loved ones while absent.  When the film opens, Marianne is gone; her son, Jan, no longer remembers her.  As the sisters struggle to reconcile their personal and political differences, we are shown a scene from their youths where they watch a film depicting burned bodies, the horror of Germany’s past.  This experience convinced Marianne to dedicate her life to preventing atrocities.  When Julianne, years later, tells Marianne her son will be sent to an orphanage, she says he will be just fine in Germany; that in developing countries children die every day and no one cares.  This is sadly not the case: after Marianne is found dead in her prison cell, Julianne sets out to retrieve Jan from the orphanage.  She finds him bed-ridden and badly burned.  In order to punish him for his mother’s militant actions someone set him on fire while he was playing in the woods.  He was no better off after all: his body uncannily resembles those shown in the film that prompted Marianne to activism in the first place.  Something similar takes place in The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978): Klages robs a bank to support her kindergarten for underprivileged children, but is doomed to separation from her own daughter while on the run.  Both advocate for the greater good of all children at the cost of their own.

The German Sisters
The German Sisters

The German Sisters makes an important point about the myth of Western Exceptionalism and problematises Marianne’s desire to play savior.  We don’t get to learn much of Marianne’s ideology: the film instead focuses on the familial problems that have resulted from her political actions.  It’s clear though that many of her methods are the result of internalised masculinist tropes of what counts as ‘radical’: to be visible, violent, unfeeling. (Contrast with Luxemburg, who gives many moving speeches but chooses to remain silent when uncertain; the opposite of ‘mansplaining’.)  Still – it’s unfortunate that Marianne receives the full blame for Jan’s fate when his father abandoned him for work, too.  Men abandoning their children (especially for their career) is sad but normalised, yet when women do the same thing it’s seen as utterly pathological, counter to motherly ‘nature’.

It is implied that Marianne was responsible for a number of bombings in the name of justice and that this is why she is so hated.  But Julianne suggests the press fabricated or exaggerated this story – throughout von Trotta’s films we see many journalists willing to ruin peoples’ lives to make a name for themselves.  This was a rampant practice in West Germany, where von Trotta was raised, and is tied to her interrogation of agency: characters are forced to contend with what they are believed to be, as portrayed by someone besides themselves.  The effects of this are damaging for both Blum and ‘Red Rosa’ (though Luxemburg of course writes articles of her own).  Significantly, the final scene of The Lost Honour is the journalist’s funeral.

The devastating inconsistency between Marianne’s politics abroad and at home reinforces the importance of the popular feminist rallying cry that the personal is political.  Marianne chooses to abandon her family because she sees them as hindering her capacity to fight for a greater good. Klages’s attempt to help a larger number of children costs her her own.  Luxemburg is never afforded the chance to have a family (her partner was unwilling; her comrades unsupportive).  Blum is regularly interrogated as to whether she acted out of love for Götten or love for Marxist ideals, as if they are mutually exclusive.  Historically, choosing between families and career has been a women’s issue; men (and only men) have been allowed to have it all.  But Susan Sontag notes the importance of balancing love and principles, defining morality as a code of acts, and of judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or trying to behave toward other human beings generally (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love.  Needless to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings, among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination.[3]

Acting out of love for a close few serves as an important reference for a morality, and as Julianne points out, it is difficult to claim action on behalf of an ideal ‘greater good’ when one’s own loved ones are forsaken.

Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg

Blum never argues but does her revolutionising quietly; Marianne forgoes her loved ones entirely for her convictions; Luxemburg acts with thoughtfulness, compassion, conviction, and urgency.  But no matter their style of loving or revolutionising, in the end all of von Trotta’s women’s are punished (killed, imprisoned) and left without partners.  Klages is the only exception.  Her lover and partner in crime is killed by the police, but when they finally catch her after months as a fugitive, she is brought to the bank teller whom she held at gun point, Lena Siedlhofer (Katharina Talbach) to be identified. Siedholfer was held responsible for the robbery by the insurance company, and because of this had been investigating Klages on her own.  In the end Siedholfer says she’s sure Klages is not the culprit: after having met Klages’s family and kindergarten, she has understood that Klages robbed the bank for a good cause.  Female allyship saves the day, and the film ends there.  But in general, von Trotta’s films are not feel-good stories of female empowerment; rather frank depictions of the way that pressures intersect and make it difficult for women to act morally.  These are pressures Siedholfer understands in the rare case that a woman is the judge.  Marianne is found dead in her prison cell, and although the media portray this as a suicide, Julianne is convinced that she was murdered.  Either way, as Julianne’s boyfriend suggests, if she didn’t kill herself she certainly got herself killed. (Julianne promptly terminates their ten-year relationship).  Rosa Luxemburg similarly dies for her beliefs and actions against individualism and violence, along with comrade Karl Liebknecht.  Her body was thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, his brought, nameless, to a morgue.  “When you expose a problem you pose a problem,” wrote Sara Ahmed.  “It might be assumed that the problem would go away if you just stop talking about it or if you went away.”[4]  In order to get rid of the problem they get rid of those who speak up about it.

Remarking upon what happens when women try to enact change, Eileen Myles wrote, “Maybe it’s redundant—women and failure,” asking, “What would a female on a cross mean?”  Luxemburg’s murder, as portrayed by von Trotta, is not a glorious and heroic act of martyrdom, but a sad silencing. Either sacrifice your convictions or be punished for ‘acting out’, von Trotta seems to say, but either way, you sacrifice.


[1] The film was co-directed with her then-husband Volker Schlöndorff and, initially, her name wasn’t going to appear in the credits: “My gentlemen colleagues thought that having a named woman director might be counterproductive”

[2] Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[3] Susan Sontag, “On Style” in Susan Sontag: Lessons of the 1960s and 70sed. David Rieff, (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2013), 30. Originally published 1966.

[4] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

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