Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Wolfgang Schenck, Ulli Lommel, Lilo Pempeit
The young and beautiful Effi Briest is encouraged by her ambitious mother to marry an up-and-coming politicians, the Baron Innstetten, though he is twice her age. She is delighted in the match and expects that Innstetten will shower her with gifts and attention. But they move to an isolated coastal town and he spends most of his time working, expecting Effi to entertain herself at home. She soon grows bored and frustrated and takes a lover – Innstetten’s acquaintance, Major Crampas. The affair quietly dies down, but years later, a loyal maid discovers Crampas’ hidden letters to Effi and gives them to Instetten with tragic results.
Also known as Fontane Effi Briest or the improbably long 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, this has long been considered one of Fassbinder’s greatest films, though I have to admit that I don’t quite understand the allure. It is, without a doubt, a beautiful film and is a rare period piece, set in Bismarck-era Prussian society. This restrained, carefully-paced film plots a woman’s rebellion against the claustrophobic, demanding, and unloving society that would prefer to see her as a jeweled bird in a gilded cage. I take this to be part of a loose, similarly-themed trilogy of 1974, where Fassbinder made three films about the oppressive domestic lives of women: Effi Briest, Martha, and Nora Helmer (an adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House).
Possibly the most interesting aspect of Effi Briest is that Fassbinder’s typical theme of emotional cruelty is so restrained. Effi is not beaten or abused; she is merely unloved and misunderstood. Fassbinder suggests that those who survive Effi – after her death of heartbreak -- are directly responsible for her plight, rather than Effi herself. Those around her, including her parents, her husband, and her daughter, essentially interpret that she has betrayed them, or somehow bitten the hand that has fed her. But Fassbinder shows that she is merely rebelling against a broken system, one that promises her love and affection, but cruelly dangles them in front of her, yet forever withholds them. She is punished for a past indiscretion, a moment of affection that could not even be fairly described as love.
This quiet encounter is actually how she learns about the artifice of her marital and social cage. Early in their marriage, her husband informed her that a dead “Chinaman,” a former servant, haunts her bedroom. She is absolutely terrified for the first half of the film and often has horrible nightmares and anxiety attacks, and refuses to sleep alone. She later learns, to her subdued sense of horror and betrayal, that this is simply a mean-spirited ploy meant to keep her prisoner psychologically. Her husband, played by physically-imposing Fassbinder regular Wolfgang Schenk after a similar role in Bremen Freedom, clearly adores Effi, but as a status symbol rather than a human being. He is not portrayed as a villain, rather as a rigid example of his society. He ultimately claims that he has shunned Effi for her indiscretion, not because he wanted to, but because that’s what society would expect of him.
Based on Theodor Fontane’s popular German novel of the same name, this black and white film is essentially a sexless film about adultery, a restrained melodrama with utterly unemotional moments of betrayed love and dishonor. The major scenes – Effi’s marriage and its consummation, the birth and infancy of her daughter, her affair with Crampas, the fatal duel between he and Innstetten – are quickly passed over. What would normally unfold dramatically is either narrated (by Fassbinder himself) or presented with a brief scene and a line of text. Each scene feels separate, vignette-like, and there is the sense that the characters are sleepwalking, which such a staple of Fassbinder’s first few films and his theatrical productions.
It is hard to find overt fault with Effi Briest. The performances, especially from Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla, are solid and the story of a woman’s resistance against a society who refuses to love in favor of ambition, bourgeois ritual, and success should be compelling. But the somnambulistic nature of the film dampens this, particularly in comparison to similarly removed films like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear of Fear, or Whity, all of which are superior to Effi Briest. There is simply no life in the film – as there is arguably no life in Effi’s existence – and the rare spark provided by a brief appearance from the wonderful Karlheinz Böhm casts this sharply into relief.
This is a rare case where I would suggest that, if you’re a Fassbinder fan, you give the film a chance regardless of my review. It’s available on German DVD and is certainly a compelling experiment, despite its flaws. At the minimum, it proves yet again that Fassbinder was moved to make films about repression in all its forms and created particularly complex and moving films about the difficult lives of women.