Fontane Effi Briest
1974 — 140 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Essential Fassbinder. One of his greatest, most universally acclaimed, and complex films, it explores the consequences of betrayed love.
Coming at the midpoint of his career, Effi Briest is one of Fassbinder's greatest, and most universally acclaimed, films. Theodor Fontane's classic 1895 novel, concerning the consequences of betrayed love, was long a favorite of Fassbinder's. After having seen the three earlier film adaptations of the book, made between 1939 and as recently as 1970, he was determined to do justice to Fontane.
Fassbinder spent years conceptualizing Effi Briest he had originally wanted it to be his directorial debut and securing the funding needed to make this lavishly detailed, yet still economically produced (DEM 750,000), picture. Although he rarely used historical settings, as he does here, this film sums up, and expands upon, the themes and stylistics of his earlier works in fascinating ways, even as it points to the many extraordinary films yet to come. Effi Briest was so important to Fassbinder that he not only wrote the screenplay (which was customary), but in his extensive role as the offscreen narrator he literally became Fontane's voice, and sometimes even Effi's. Adding yet another personal layer, he also cast his own mother, Lilo Pempeit, as Effi's mother (shown in the center of the frame one of the film's many evocative "mirror shots" with Effi/Hanna Schygulla).
Although I believe Effi Briest is one of Fassbinder's most intricate masterpieces, as discussed below, in many ways it is also one of his most accessible films. On its most basic level, it features an engrossing melodrama about adultery, albeit one purposefully shorn of histrionics. Set in the closed, repressive Prussian society of the Bismarck era, it shows what happens when seventeen-year-old Effi Briest (Hanna Schygulla, who appeared in twenty of Fassbinder's films), with prodding from her parents, makes an expedient marriage to a rising politician twice her age, Baron Geert von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck), and later has an affair with the charming Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel). (All three are shown in the frame above; Instetten/Schenck has his back to the camera.) Fassbinder brings to his film performances of exceptional nuance and depth, rich period detail and production design (Kurt Raab), and striking black and white cinematography (Jürgen Jürge and Dietrich Lohmann). (It was the work which hooked me on his pictures and sent me scurrying all over New York and Los Angeles, for the better part of a decade, to track down virtually all of them at museums, universities, and revival houses). But the film also works on many more levels, and the more I re-see it (Wellspring's DVD, made from a restored print, is flawless) the more I see in it, and the more deeply it affects me. Not only as Effi's wrenching story but as Fassbinder's profound involvement both in the social implications of her tale and in his probing of the expressive possibilities of film itself.
Let's begin with Fassbinder's complete title, perhaps the longest for any film: Fontane Effi Briest or Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds, Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It.
Fassbinder's titular use of that "or..." reminds us that his source comes from an earlier era, when plays and novels had "double titles" (to pull just one example out of the air, Horatio Alger's archetypal 1867 "rags to riches" novel Ragged Dick is actually entitled Ragged Dick or, Street Life in New York, which indicates both the main character and, in the secondary title, their relationship to a larger social milieu). Significantly, Fontane's novel has no such subtitle; and of course Fassbinder's cuts immediately to the political, and psychological, heart of his investment in the book.
Like so many other details in this film, Fassbinder communicates still more by how he visually represents his polemical subtitle. It appears, black on white (as it would in a printed book), but "corsetted" (squeezed) and with most words "broken" (needlessly hyphenated) in a narrow column 14 lines high. On a first viewing, this just seemed wilfull and strange. But when I thought about it more, I realized that even a detail this minor reinforces the themes of repression (Effi is herself literally "corsetted" and constricted throughout the film) and brokenness. Fassbinder being Fassbinder, there is also a playful in-your-face dimension to it.
On the one hand, the "Fontane" which Fassbinder includes in his title reveals that he will be more "faithful" to Fontane than the earlier film versions. But the opening shot immediately tells us that he is also making Fassbinder's Effi Briest. He begins the film with his own voice reciting, as the narrator, the exact words of the novel's opening, but what he shows us is slightly – and intriguingly – different in tone from Fontane's matter-of-fact prose. Fassbinder's initial shot (presented to the left, like all frames on this page, in its correct aspect ratio of 1.33:1) is more than a bit portentous, both in its slightly off-kilter composition and in the prevalence of shadows and obscuring branches (which Fassbinder uses as visual motifs throughout the film) which surround the house. This subtly foreboding quality is, as we will see, appropriate for Effi's fate.
Fassbinder, with his well-known background in theatre, is sometimes accused of being a "stagy" filmmaker. Yes... and no. Especially in his early films, he sometimes employs theatrical - and politically charged – techniques often drawn from the influential socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht (and his cinematic avatar, French New Wave guru Jean-Luc Godard). But Fassbinder deserves full credit as a filmmaker who understands the expressive possibilities of image.
To take just one, of literally hundreds, of examples from Effi Briest, compare the opening shot with this one from much later on (DVD at Chapter 12, 1:04:10). The voyeuristic Instetten, hiding in a forest, spies on Effi together with Crampas. For both shots, Fassbinder uses the same basic composition: Note the ominous black tree trunk on the left, the looming branches overhead, the spill of light in the lower center with shadows to its right.
It is, of course, a striking composition. But for viewers interested in looking at the many visual connections which Fassbinder has placed within the film, it resonates thematically with its ominous quality. And although I do not want to go on too much about symbolism, it feels significant in both frames – as in many comparable shots throughout the film – that we have a pinched main area surrounded by darkness. Again, that idea – and feeling – of being constrained, repressed, trapped.
The very next scene, a complete tonal contrast (literally day following night), shows the Instettens in their boudoir (see the frame to the left – reproduced larger to show details), and it is even more fraught with layers of irony and social implication. Psychologically and politically, this film is one of Fassbinder's most incisive explorations of repression, and the steep price it exacts from both individuals, especially women, and society. In this image, note how Fassbinder creates a beautiful but telling emblem for Effi's married life: Cosseted behind a lace net, eyes downturned, sinking into a feather bed, sipping coffee – while her up-and-coming husband in a suit pontificates behind her, all the time trying to trick her into revealing her infidelity. Of course, Instetten is still further framed, and constrained, by a leafy oval-shaped grille. And both of them are watched over by a praying plaster cherub, ironically suggesting the role religion plays in their lives.
As just these few shots highlight, Fassbinder has an extraordinary cinematic imagination. He can resonantly use image to create a film which is simultaneously coolly ironic, politically trenchant, and, as we will see more clearly below, complexly emotional.
Stylistically, Effi Briest is also one of his most successful attempts to bring together the major influences on his films. He unites, and in some ways expands upon, the political and cinematic reflexiveness of Godard (Pierrot le Fou, Week End) with the restrained melodramatic passion of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind). Fassbinder includes a dazzling, and resonant, use of Sirkian "mirror shots" throughout the film, which both multiply and falsify the person reflected, even as they create yet another layer of framing (the shot, then the mirror's own border), and by implication constricting, the character usually Effi (again, note the first frame of Effi and her mother included at the top of this article). Fassbinder also acknowledges the fluid, and emotionally charged, camera movements of another of his favorite filmmakers, Max Ophüls (La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame de...) in the tense soiree scene with the singer Marietta Tripelli (who performs Spohr's haunting "Lullaby"). Fassbinder slowly encircles Effi with his camera, always careful to keep the composition unbalanced. Effi, motionless, looks distractedly ahead, as she so often does throughout the film. (It should be noted that despite this scene, Ophüls's influence is primarily evident in the films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant when Fassbinder used cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who, by the way, is related to Ophüls.)
We can also see the influence of Ingmar Bergman, whose Cries and Whispers (1972), for example, is recalled in Fassbinder's design and atypical use of fades: To red in Bergman, to white in Fassbinder (instead of the near-universal "fade to black"). These "fades to white" are a crucial punctuation in Effi Briest, not only signaling the obvious end of a scene, but providing an unsettling - not to mention unifying – element throughout the entire film, momentarily turning the scene and characters into a ghostly negation of themselves. This also connects with the film's ghost motif: One way in which Instetten exerts a subtle control over his impressionable teenage wife is by telling her that his estate is haunted. The "dead Chinaman" frightens her throughout much of the film, as she thinks she hears or sees him almost everywhere.
No question, thist is a visually sumptuous film. But on another level, Fassbinder uses that deceptively exquisite formal style, including the richly authentic period detail, to deflect attention from his complex experimentation with point of view and narrative form. With powerful, though subtle, effect, he uses the film's formal construction to explore the very repression in Effi's life and world. He does this by omitting not only the histrionics from his performers (whom some people see as "hypnotized"), but by eliding the key emotional scenes which audiences would expect in a melodrama about adultery.
Fassbinder-the-narrator often tells us instead of shows us – the cardinal rule of commercial filmmaking – what is happening to his characters. The voice over is not extraneous, in that it never duplicates what we do see (such redundancy is the curse of most filmic narration). Rather it describes, and by implication comments on, what a conventional film would have depicted. At one emotionally fraught moment, the narrator tells us that Effi "threw herself on Instetten." But we see no such thing. The couple is offscreen, and we are left in the kitchen watching the servants desultorily preparing a meal. This defuses the melodrama, which produces a fascinating double effect. On the one hand, it thwarts our expectations – hence giving us aesthetic distance; but on the other hand, it forces us to imagine the scenes for ourselves – which, paradoxically, draws us even further into Effi's experience. This strategy, which Fassbinder uses throughout the entire film, can be seen as a complex balancing of Brechtian (and Godardian) distancing techniques with Sirkian melodrama, sort of an aesthetic 'having your cake (of alienation) and eating it too (emotional involvement).'
Perhaps the most dramatic, or rather anti-dramatic, illustration of the disconnect between narrative expectation and visual presentation is Effi's pivotal "monologue", in which she reevaluates her entire life (DVD Chapter 15, beginning at 1:29:44). We see her on a dreary day in a park walkingly slowly, fringed parasol resting on her shoulder, while Fassbinder the narrator and once inside Effi's emotional core and cooly distant from it tells us that she feels. As she reaches the most intense part of her thoughts, she begins walking away from the camera. Now with her back to us, we hear Fassbinder quietly intone, "I'm tormented by fear and ashamed of the whole web of lies. But I feel no shame for my guilt, or not properly and not enough, and that is what's destroying me."
This also highlights the sometimes extremes of narrative elision which Fassbinder employs. Of course, on a practical level, he had to cut much of Fontane's lengthy novel to keep the film to a manageable length. And in the dozens of brief scenes in Effi Briest (equal in number to three or four of his other films combined), his dramatic skills are precisely on target. He begins, develops, and ends with exemplary economy, highlighting the dramatic and psychological essence in telling, but subtle, ways for each scene which he presents.
But what about the many convetionally expected scenes that he omits?
In this film about adultery, there are no scenes of naked cavorting (although Fassbinder gave us some astonishingly original examples in The Merchant of Four Seasons). Time and again, Fassbinder denies us the expected melodramatic scenes, going far what you would expect even from a realisic portrayal of such a hyper-reserved society. But Fassbinder uses this restraint to intensify the theme of repression, and its awful price. Had we seen Effi and Crampas writhing erotically, Crampas's fate might have seemed at least somewhat justified. The coolly matter-of-fact way in which Fassbinder films it is, although frustrating for some viewers, even more shocking, and poignantly revealing, for others. We can see another instance of how his narrative elision works on a thematic level in Effi and Instetten's daughter, Annie (whom Instetten tellingly calls his "precious toy"). Although her birth is one of the central moments in her parents' lives, Fassbinder does not even show us the child for a half hour after her (of course) offscreen birth; and then the little girl, now about six years old (!), only appears for the few seconds it takes her to stumble on the dark stairs. So the film's youngest character is effectively eliminated from the action, but at the same time she takes on an increased symbolic weight: What Instetten and by extension his society do to her, render her invisible, is what we see, or rather don't see. And in her one extended scene with her mother, after Instetten's has thrown her out, this petite, but rigid, little girl (whom we see framed through a half-open door, as the camera pulls away from her and her mother) speaks disconcertingly with the voice of a grown woman.
To further distance us from the action so that we can better contemplate its social, and perhaps even personal, implications about once every reel (i.e., ten minutes) Fassbinder inserts a sententious title card in the "old-fashioned" Fraktur typeface (the sixth and seventh of these thirteen "cards" are identical, and representative: They mention "an artifice calculated to inspire fear"). They add yet another layer of narrative depth, reminding us of their use in both silent movies and Brecht's plays, since he sometimes employed giant "message cards" to the side of the stage. As befits this complex film, they simultaneously clarify Fassbinder's political message and blunt its emotional impact: Fassbinder is always aware of the cheapening effect of conventional emotionalism, even when (as in many of his other films), he purposefully lays it on full blast. But in Effi Briest, he keeps the tone, both dramatic and visual, resolutely cool, forcing us to contemplate, and fill in, the looming emotional gaps.
Fassbinder even brings this elliptical technique to his use of music, traditionally one of the most involving, albthough subliminal, elements of a film. The only scoring heard throughout the entire film is the jaunty, but slightly melancholy, main theme of Saint-Saëns popular "Havanaise." Although I realize that I'm going out on a metaphorical limb here, Effi could be compared to this heavily truncated use of Saint-Saëns' violin concerto. We hear only 15 seconds of its nine-minute length, so like Effi that lone violin is never allowed to develop, to become expansive, to play off of the full orchestra. In any event, this often-repeated refrain both buoys the film with its energy while simultaneously undercuts that effect by its repetitiveness. In other words, it fits perfectly with Fassbinder's overall plan for his film.
Music, and its absence, also brings our attention to the temporal aspect of this film, namely, Fassbinder's distortion of time. Although the film is just under two and half hours in length, it feels twice that long but, paradoxically, it is never less than completely engrossing. Fassbinder creates a sense of the fluid, yet inexorable progress of time, which sweeps Effi along just as much as the repressive, and ultimately (self-)destructive, society which she never quite manages to rebel against enough to affirm her own life. Visually, Fassbinder encapsulates that idea in the images which bookend the film. From the very beginning of the film, the second shot (seen to the left) set in the yard of the Briests' home (and depicting the same scene in Fontane's novel) is repeated as the final image. Only here at the end of this cinematically exhilarating but emotionally draining film, Effi is gone and the swing hangs limp. We see Effi's parents tiny, motionless figures in the distance as we hear Frau Briest wonder if "perhaps she was too young." (With the gift of hindsight, some people might wonder if Fassbinder's mother, who outlived her son by over a decade, ever had similar thoughts: But here, she is Effi's mother.) All that Herr Briest can say is, "That's too vast a subject."
For him, yes. But not for Fassbinder.
Throughout the film, we have seen Fassbinder use an extraordinary array of techniques to strip away the characters', and he would hope the audience's, self-delusions: Hypnotic performances, narrative elision and the "repressing" of our expectations for melodrama, tense but beautiful visual compositions, and a density of detail which is both historically meticulous yet, on another level, ironic. It is no accident that this film is filled with statues, which so uncannily parallel the stiff people who share the screen with them (recall the shot of Effi, Instetten and the plaster cherub). This is a world in which the human figures increasingly recede into the background, where outdoors they are obscured by branches and bushes, while indoors their rigid forms are framed in narrow doorways and reflected constrained and meaninglessly multiplied in a series of ever more elaborate mirrors. In Effi Briest, Fassbinder has captured the poetry of repression: Exquisitely beautiful but enervating and, ultimately, fatal.
Drained of their vitality by, as Fassbinder put it in the film's secondary title: "...Acquiesc[ing] to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds...", these people have no more humanity, or presence, than the objects with which they surround themselves. But what keeps this picture from being some overly cerebral political tract, and gives it enormous emotional force, is that we see Effi, on the verge of understanding herself and the nature of her monumentally repressive world, trying to break free. This unforgettable film's heartbreaking power comes from the reality that ultimately, and tragically like the misbegotten protagonists of so many of Fassbinder's works she can not.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created an outstanding transfer (from a restored print, personally supervised by filmmakers Wim Wenders and Juliane Lorenz), with additional resources detailed below.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Original mono soundtrack
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 20 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed May 14, 2003
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