Knife in the Head (1978)

 “I am … Nobody.”

knifeThe German film Knife in the Head (Messer Im Kopf) from director Reinhard Hauff is one of a handful of films created to reflect and question society in post-Red Army Faction Germany. Knife in the Head is the story of a perfectly innocent German citizen who becomes caught up in the state machine when he’s erroneously identified as a terrorist. Deemed guilty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s framed in order to justify police brutality.

The film concerns bio-geneticist Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) who’s separated from his wife Anna (Angela Winkler). When the film begins Hoffman tries to contact Anna, and when that doesn’t work, he drives over to one of her frequent haunts–a youth center on Jacobi Strasse. But just as Hoffman arrives, the police raid the building. Hoffman, anxious about Anna, ignores police orders to stay out of the building, and he runs inside. He’s ordered to stop. He turns, and he’s shot in the head. Barely alive, he’s taken to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Hoffman survives, but his survival brings a host of problems. Hoffman faces years of physical rehabilitation. Paralyzed on his right side, he’s also lost a great deal of his memory. He has to relearn speech and is incapable of the simplest acts of self-care; he even has to be taught how to feed himself. The official police version of events is that Hoffman stabbed a policeman who then shot him in self-defense. Meanwhile, the police, convinced that Hoffman is a terrorist, post a 24-hour watch in the hospital, and decide he’s “faking” his injuries. His estranged wife, Anna feels a moral obligation to Hoffman, yet she’s in another relationship with the confrontational Volker (Heinz Hoenig).

The media has a field day with the story, and at first it’s reported that Hoffman just has a few “knocks on the head,” while the policeman’s superficial stab wound is reported as near fatal. Soon the papers (a not-so-subtle criticism of the Springer Press) carry stories about “Berthold Hoffman’s Double Life,” and his reputation is utterly destroyed. A great deal of the film follows Hoffman’s painstakingly slow recovery in the hospital. Unable to defend himself–partly because at first he can’t speak, and partly because he suffers from memory loss–the police build a case against him and want to haul him off to a prison hospital. One huge problem with the official version of events is that there’s no knife to back up the story against Hoffman. And this is where the film’s title comes in–the knife–is a figment of the imagination, and it exists only in someone’s head.

Meanwhile, Volker, who’s a seasoned adversary of the state, reasons that if Hoffman is going to be questioned while he’s incapacitated, he should be groomed for this. He argues: “you want the pigs to make him learn their version, or what?” Anna disagrees, but it’s perhaps Hoffman’s lawyer who takes the more reasonable approach. In this critically sensitive time period for Hoffman, Volker, in trying to spread the word about Hoffman, ends up creating further problems for Hoffman (makes me think of Jeff Luers). All of Hoffman’s life–his work, his education count for nothing as far as the state is concerned, and even though there’s a perfectly rational explanation for why Hoffman was at the Youth Centre, he’s labeled a terrorist and no one outside of Hoffman’s immediate circle questions this version of events.

Anna and Volker visit Hoffman in hospital, and it’s an awkward situation at best–even though Volker states Hoffman is “just a political case.” Each visit to Hoffman is preceded by a search, and here’s the dialogue from one scene:

Volker (to policeman at desk who is calling in to report visitors): What does Big Brother say? Am I a good guy or a bad guy? Check my bank account while you’re at it.

Policeman: No money for 2 years. Your social life is a front. Want to know more?

Volker: Yes

Policeman: You’ve got a police record. Didn’t finish high school. Arrested for disturbing the peace. Three illegal demonstrations this year. Drug abuse too, etc etc.

Volker: So I’m a good guy. How come you and brother aren’t wireless yet?

Policeman: Soon enough. Thanks to you and your friends.

Perhaps the greatest travesty against Hoffman, however, is that after ruining his life, his career, and his health, the police simply ‘move on’ leaving him destroyed. Their attention is now focused on someone else. Hoffman, who’s been an innocent bystander, a victim, and scripted as a terrorist by the police, the media and society, finally takes his fate into his own hands and seeks answers. In German with subtitles.


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Filed under German, Political/social films

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