27 March 2012 at 17:01

Katharina Blum or has terrorism robbed us of the possibility to believe in pure love?


Approaching Katharina Blum – Pograjc chose the right way


In the Mladinsko theatre play The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead Matjaž Pograjc captures the conscience of West Germany as seen by Heinrich Böll, projecting his timeless message into here and now.


Refusing to be a moralist

Reich-Ranitzki says of Böll that he did not wish to be a moralist. To this point we can pin the opinion that with the theatrical adaptation of Katharina Blum Matjaž Pograjc managed not only to capture the essence of the novel in its expressive power, but also the spirit of the societal situation into which the story is woven. The novel does not condemn the actions of the media as much as it criticizes the entire German society. The latter, self-complacently contemplating its economic miracle and a newfound international reputation due to an excellently executed getting-rid-of-the-Nazis “performance” (I say performance because mostly since the onset of the anti-parliamentary opposition until the mid-sixties more and more evidence pointed to the fact that many of the those who willingly collaborated with the Nazi regime retained privileged positions, something RAF terrorism picked on) became downright vivacious, striving for unbearable insipidity. That is way Böll's style in Katharina Blum as well as in the 1972 article in which he condemned BILD's reporting about the members of RAF and especially about Ulrike Meinhof was ironic and not at all moralistic.

Journalist “must wear 'shiny' jacket”

Pograjc managed to stage this spirit of a fine line between irony and an almost disillusioned cynicism, a sort of a decadent Roman spirit just before the collapse of the Empire. BILD's reporter Tötges (Ivan Peternelj) simply “has to be” a dissolute egoist dressed in a trashy, slimy, bling-bling jacket. In the beginning, nobody wants to take him seriously. This “light-hearted approach to facts and truth”, however, is what has contributed to society’s demise in the last few decades and mostly at a time that should be characterized by the fall of all “traditional” ideologies. This new situation, in which reality is actually constructed by the media, is something that Pograjc and his set designer Tomaž Štrucl demonstrate brilliantly, projecting photographs of characters related to Katharina on the back wall of the stage during the play.
These photographs are exactly the kind that can be found in tabloid press; photographs of people caught in awkward positions, such as with heads bent at a weird angle or clumsily getting in the car or simply with strange looks on their faces. The kind on which even honourable citizens turn out idiotic with an IQ around 80 or hardened fiends when THE NEWSPAPER feels the need to tarnish their reputation. The impression of the modern society imbued with media is further consolidated by the structure of the play itself, in which Katharina's every move and interrogation is followed by “radio news”. THE NEWSPAPER and its pals in the form of judicial interrogators, mostly the amazingly treacherous Beizmenne (Matej Recer), who freely falsifies Katharina's statements to THE NEWSPAPER'S “taste and needs”, show their extreme depravity and inhumanity particularly when turning out to be incapable of believing in love.

Splendid Romana Šalehar

Pure love is what Katharina is convicted of. In the midst of this drama on terrorism, insipidity, depravity and sensationalism, Katharina is the only one capable of love. A girl so reserved and hard-working people describe her as a nun gives herself to a man just a few hours after they first meet … Because she simply loves him. People cannot believe it. They cannot believe Katharina did not know it was a terrorist on the run. Katharina must be “a communist pig”, “Kremlin's aunt” and “a murderer's bride” all in one. She must be. Such pure love is surely impossible. And Romana Šalehar as Katharina managing to display this fatal combination of decency, innocence and at the same time seduction and strength is also the show's ultimate trump card.
All the other actors are excellent as well. At the end of the play you feel a remarkable sense of continuity of the entire stage work. Štrucl finds an interesting solution for the scene, which almost makes you wonder how such a small stage can be so organized with but a few partitions. The action thus takes place in two or three venues at once without giving the feeling of overcrowding. What happens to Katharina affects the lives of people connected to her while the media are already in on it at the same time – this simultaneousness or parallel lives of a publicly exposed individual are really well underlined on the set as well as in the interesting fact that each of the actors (with the exception of Romana Šalehar) plays several roles on stage. This alludes to the modern man's fluidity of identities. Because of man's self-inscenation both in the real and possibly several parallel virtual worlds we can no longer be sure who the person really is.

To each the right to defence and self-correction

The gist of the play (and the novel) is a warning that by becoming a mass media society we have clearly lost faith in the possibility of innocence; both innocence in the legal sense of the word as well as innocence of a person's pure soul. Heinrich Böll believed in innocence and virtue despite experiencing the worst possible evil on numerous occasions. He believed in every person's right of defence and the momentary display of inner tenderness. That is why he wanted and why he could come to the defence of Ulrike Meinhof, defending her from the cannibalistic public and the twisted media. It was not about defending terrorism. For him, it was about making a stand for the possibility every man should have: showing he is a human being. Katharina was denied this possibility, yet despite a violent outburst and a deliberate manslaughter on stage she still remains a human being. And that is of the essence.
And that is of the essence for Heinrich Böll as well. The influence of his standing up for humanity peaked right in the early seventies. Back then he was also the president of PEN International and won – as mentioned above – a Nobel Prize in Literature. In June 1972, following the arrest of Andreas Baader, Bölls' country house in the Eifel region was searched with two of Heinrich Böll's guests having to show their passports. All of a sudden, the media started wondering why Böll was selling so well in the Soviet Union; before they valued his support to dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn. Would Böll not have gotten the Nobel Prize after 1972 … That of course I do not know. But what is certain is that back then many members of the Nobel Academy were able to appreciate Böll wishing to give another chance to all persons and seeing the effort of the young RAF activists via their otherwise bloody actions as a way of seeking justice and original humanity.

Polona Balantič

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