Knife in the Head (Messer im Kopf, 1978)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Reinhard Hauff

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Following the massacre at the Munich Olympics and the domestic insurgency of the Baader-Meinhof gang, West Germany—not yet united with the East—reverted to some of its bad old ways. Any group who protested against the loss of freedoms under a more vigilant government and police force could find themselves under threat of physical violence and imprisonment. It is the story of one man with ties to one such group that director and co-screenwriter Reinhard Hauff takes up in Knife in the Head.

Biogenetist Bernhard Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) putters about in his laboratory one evening, putting away cells he has been working on and closing things up. He makes a phone call. We don’t hear the other end of the conversation, but he says, “I’m coming to pick you up.” Where he is headed is a community center rife with anti-oppression slogans. The police have surrounded the building and are holding back crowds. Hoffman is initially stopped from going into the building, but he breaks away and enters as a man and a woman being pushed into a paddy wagon yell his name. He moves to the back of the community center, in which police are scuffling with civilians, presumably to look for the person he spoke with. At that moment, the frame freezes and a loud gunshot is heard. Fade to black.

When we next see Hoffman, he is on a hospital gurney, his head in bandages obviously applied in the field, and being rushed to surgery. Apparently, a policeman was stabbed by Hoffman and shot him in self-defense. He’s being attended to as well. Hospital personnel can’t say whether either man will make it.

The next time we see Hoffman is postop. He’s just waking up, and the two people we saw yelling to him from the paddy wagon are there to visit. Ann (Angela Winkler) appears to be Hoffman’s wife. The man, Volker (Heinz Hoenig), protests as the police make them empty their pockets. Just to show him whose boss, a cop pats him down for weapons. Ann and Volker don gowns; Ann goes in to see Hoffman. His eyes are deeply bruised from the surgery, and he has an almost greenish look about his skin. His lidded eyes look at Ann without recognition. She kisses him. He sputters out imperfectly, “Those bastards” and “Ann.” His life still hangs in the balance.

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Once he is over the first hurdle—surviving—his long rehabilitation commences. His verbal and motor skills have been damaged, as well as his memory. He looks at a picture book and repeats with his therapist the words that match the pictures, “dog, spoon.” He has trouble with “banana.” He writes with his left hand, considered progress until Anleitner (Hans Christian Blech) his lawyer and friend says, “he used to be right-handed.” No more of that—his right side is mostly paralyzed.

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More of Hoffman’s larger story starts to emerge as he relearns just about everything. His wife and he separated several months before the incident, and she is living with Volker. She visits Hoffman dutifully but does not intend to take care of him for long after his discharge. Oh, and officials are claiming Hoffman is a terrorist working with the community center group, whose headquarters they plan to raze. Hoffman becomes something of a minor celebrity in the hospital. When he is practiced enough to walk, he goes to the patient lounge on the neurosurgical ward and orders a beer. One fellow patient asks for his autograph on an article that has his picture and the headline, “Bernhard Hoffman – Terrorist?” and purports to tell of his double life.

As the pressure comes down hard on Hoffman’s doctor (Eike Gallwitz) to release Hoffman to a prison hospital, Anleitner works hard to persuade zealous detective Scholz (Hans Brenner) that Hoffman was not involved. Scholz assures an incredulous Anleitner that he not only thinks Hoffman is a terrorist, he “knows it. Don’t let the absent-minded professor act fool you.” In a face-to-face confrontation, Hoffman has been positively identified by Schurig (Udo Samel), the stabbed officer, as his attacker. Soon, in an attempt to take back control of his life, Hoffman escapes from the hospital, and after a difficult reunion with Ann and recapture, eventually confronts Schurig to find out if he is indeed a knife-wielding terrorist or simply has a knife in his head.

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The script and direction of this film layer it with ambiguity and suspicion. We don’t know who Ann is at first. When she and Volker come to the hospital to see Hoffman, the estrangement between the married couple seems more like an activist trying to take advantage of a brain-damaged man. For what purpose, it’s hard to say, but her insistence that Anleitner get him out of the hospital as soon as possible might indicate that Hoffman has something she wants or could reveal something damaging to the police—or maybe something else entirely. Right before his escape, we know his wits have returned to him in some measure when he finds the policeman guarding his hospital room playing chess with himself, and handily puts the guard into checkmate with one move. His escape isn’t particularly difficult because he seems to be counting on hospital staff to assume he is too handicapped in mind and body to attempt one. Is Hoffman really a terrorist adept at fooling people, or is he just gaining back some measure of the intelligent man he once was, as well as the desire to be free?

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It would be easy to sympathize with Hoffman if Ganz had portrayed him as the type of brain-injured victim we are used to seeing in movies. Think Regarding Henry, and you’ll know how wrong and false it is to think that injury is ennobling. Ganz’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. His rehabilitation is slow and painful to watch, his frustration palpable, his desire to become a whole man—including a sexual being who can win his wife back again—relentless. We can’t really be sure of the reality of his double life until the very end of the film because we don’t see him before his fateful night. That superb choice by Hauff keeps us focused on Hoffman as a complex man with unfortunate ties to a political enemy of the state who can arouse doubt as well as sympathy in us.

Last year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film from Germany, The Lives of Others, is heir to Knife in the Head. As that win shows, the paranoia and police-state measures that have reemerged in modern times have made Knife in the Head relevant again. Bruno Ganz, with his uncanny ability to play everything from a devil to an angel, always was. l

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    9th/06/2008 to 11:43 am

    Amen to Ganz, who is indeed a marvelous actor … thanks for the tip on this flick, Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2008 to 11:54 am

    Rick – If I weren’t a rabid Ganz fan, I would never have picked up this movie. What a pleasant surprise! I hope you like it.

  • Robin Parmar spoke:
    8th/01/2009 to 9:34 am

    I saw this film once many years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Where do I find a copy?

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