The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
When a young woman spends the night with an alleged terrorist, her quiet, ordered life falls into ruins. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum portrays an anxious era in West Germany amid a crumbling postwar political consensus. Katharina, though apparently innocent, suddenly becomes a suspect, falling prey to a vicious smear campaign by the police and a ruthless tabloid journalist that tests the limits of her dignity and her sanity. Crafting one of the most accessible and direct works of 1970s political filmmaking, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta deliver a powerful adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel, a stinging commentary on state power, individual freedom, and media manipulation that is as relevant today as when it was released.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their DVD edition of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The film has been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
The notes indicate this master comes from a new 4K restoration conducted by StudioCanal, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Throwing the disc in initially I questioned a few things, starting with the colours. I’ve become so used to warmer colours on new 4K restorations that it was shocking to see a colour scheme that was pretty damn close to what can be found on the old DVD edition. In the included interview with director of photography Jost Vacano, he mentions that the film should have a colder look, so I figured “oh good, they left it alone.”
The second thing I questioned was the rendering of the grain. It’s a bit coarser and more “chunky” than I would have expected. It looked okay, but it didn’t feel like it was scanned from a negative as the notes indicate. I initially put this down to maybe the film stock, even though grain could appear noisy in low-lit shots. Though I wasn't sure what the deal was exactly, detail was decent, and the colours and black levels (to an extent) look fine.
Then Caps-a-Holic posted comparisons between a few editions—including Criterion’s Blu-ray, the newer StudioCanal Blu-ray using the new 4K restoration, and then the older StudioCanal Blu-ray using an older high-def restoration—and looking at their comparisons it became clear that Criterion was not using the new restoration. Though I still don't put an incredible amount of weight into screen grabs being the best way to determine quality of a presentation, it seems pretty clear from those comparisons that Criterion’s looks closer to the older master and not the newer one, with the 4K sourced edition showing finer grain levels and better details (on top of greener colours, which is sadly not too surprising).
Knowing now that Criterion is using an older master is disappointing, and I'm not sure how the mix-up occurred (especially since this opens with the newer StudioCanal logo). Yet despite all of this, the older master Criterion ended up using holds up remarkably well all things considered: It's clean a majority of the time, it still retains a film-like look, and detail (though more than likely sourced from an interpositive) is still good. I'd also go as far as to say, based on the colours shown in the screen grabs of the newer restoration and what Vacano says in the included interview, the colours here are more than likely a better representation of what was intended.
In comparison to Criterion's original release the image offered here has also had more repair work done: there are still some minor marks, and the colours fluctuate a bit at the end, but it’s far cleaner overall, with some of the larger marks present on the DVD edition now gone. In that area and the area of definition this Blu-ray still offers a big upgrade over the DVD (which was pretty good itself), but it's clear this could have looked better (ignoring the green-ish tint on the newer restoration).
The German lossless PCM 1.0 monaural presentation is perfectly acceptable for the film. The track is clean, there are no sudden drops or pops, and both music and dialogue are clear and distinct. Fidelity and range are decent enough but ultimately unremarkable.
Criterion ports the content over from their DVD. Things start off with a 29-minute interview featuring Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. It’s one of the staler conversations about a film between two directors I can recall, but they do talk about the political climate in Germany at the time, how that led to Boll’s novel (on which the film is based), and then how they came to make the film. They then talk about the production, its release, and so forth. Interestingly, von Trotta was initially involved because she was to play the lead character. Director of photography Jost Vacano speaks for 16-minutes about the film’s look, explaining how he tried to capture a look of realism. He also has some interesting comments on how lighting can may need to differ depending on how much presence the actor brings to his role
Criterion then includes around 33-minutes’ worth of excerpts from a 1977 documentary on author Heinrich Böll. The excerpts taken (which include interviews with the author) revolve around the events that would lead Böll to write The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which really started after he wrote an article around the Baader-Meinhof group and the response to the crackdown on them (he was basically pointing out that members of the group had rights public and police were over-reacting). This led to him being accused of being a terrorist sympathizer and was constantly harassed by police, which of course all played into his book. If the film angered you these excerpts will probably do the same. Text notes that were available on the DVD have been edited into the opening of the feature.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer. Similar to the DVD edtition the insert for this edition features an essay by Amy Taubin. The notes explain it’s an extended version of what she wrote for the DVD, though it’s actually a complete rewrite and is a few pages longer, with Taubin getting into the background of the film’s directors a bit more and the New German cinema this time around.
Outside of Taubin’s essay there is nothing new but the material—ignoring the staleness of the Schlöndorff/von Trotta interview—does do a wonderful job contextualizing the film.
Though serviceable it ends up not being that big of an upgrade in the end. While the picture is technically an improvement (and still a decent one) over the DVD it’s clear this is not making use of StudioCanal’s 4K restoration.