Effi Briest (Cert U)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Films) Running Time: 141 minutes approx.
For Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapting the celebrated 1896 German novel by Theodor Fontane was a labour of love. Originally intended to be Fassbinder’s major directorial debut in 1972 it would take two years to arrive on cinema screens, after a struggle to gain financial backing for what would prove to be an expensive endeavour.
In this fourth cinematic adaptation of Fontane’s novel, the titular character (Hanna Schygulla) is a 17 year-old girl betrothed to 38 year-old Baron Geert von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck), a former soldier now studying law. Because of her ambitions to be part of the upper classes, Effi agrees to the marriage but soon finds life as the wife to an often-absent bureaucrat dull.
Shortly after Effi gives birth to a daughter, Annie, Instetten introduces his wife to an old friend, Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel). With Instetten’s continued absence, Effi and Crampas begin an affair which doesn’t last long and is forgotten years later until Instetten moves the family to Berlin, discovering love letters to Effi from Crampas.
Fontane was a noted realist author and Effi Briest remains his most popular and enduring work, despite boasting a plot more akin to a Barbara Cartland paperback. Yet this is not completely about adultery per se so anyone expecting a 19th century bodice ripper will be disappointed. As affairs go, this one is so chaste, one expects Effi and Crampas to politely shake hands after each tryst.
The real intention behind this novel, reportedly based on a real event, is to look at how lofty social standings are not always a guaranteed recipe for happiness. Fontane promulgates the rigidity of maintaining a highly visible social status is in fact a restrictive and unfulfilling endeavour that, for women in particular, oppresses their freedoms.
At the start of the film, Effi’s mother Louise (Lilo Pempeit – Fassbinder’s mother) introduces her free spirit her daughter, bemused how someone as staid as Instetten – who once tried to court Louise when they were both younger – would want Effi. Interestingly, Louise didn’t marry Instetten because he was a lowly soldier at the time, while her future husband (Herbert Steinmetz) was connected to nobility.
Perhaps the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in terms of social status being an ambition, but even after giving their blessing, both parents wonder if Effi is making a mistake. Over time, Instetten reveals himself as someone seemingly incapable of showing affection, unclear as to what he wants in a wife. Effi is similarly confounded by being so young and clearly marrying in haste for the wrong reasons.
In the hands of one of the Bronte sisters or Oscar Wilde, this would be an engaging drama full of pithy bon mots, lively, forthright characters and incisive social commentary of the period. With Fontane being an intellectual, and if Fassbinder’s adaptation is any indication, his work is deeply philosophical and ponderous, as expected from a man aged 75 when he wrote it.
Because Fassbinder had so much love for this work, his film is similarly inert and unyielding in its reflection of the austere protocol of the era. Shot in vivid black and white, the tone is cold and formal and truly free movement is sparse, the film broken up into what seems like isolated vignettes unrelated to an overarching story.
Effi’s debut sees her on a swing in her garden to illustrate her effervescence yet it is but a few scenes later that she becomes a tiny figure seated before her upstanding husband. This particular tableau is used frequently to delineate the then idea of a status within a marriage, with Instetten always stood upright filling the frame, while Effi is either seated meekly or lying down.
In her husband’s absence Effi develops a fear of ghosts and can’t sleep, which Instetten berates her for, fearing such foolishness would harm his political career. The affair between Effi and Crampas is inevitable yet in many ways unjust as Instetten isn’t a monster towards Effi, just an awkward man who requires a logical rationale behind everything.
Instead of husband and wife trying to sort out their issues, we are treated to endless monologues or prolix discussion the spouses have with everyone except each other. And this begets another issue with this film – Fassbinder chose to lift large portions of Fontane’s original text as dialogue, as well as the headings for intertitles and verbatim readings by Fassbinder himself as narrator.
The result is something rather dull and light on action, with much of the drama conveyed verbally instead of visually, leaving the cast to hold a pose whilst Fassbinder explains the next move. For such a glorious looking film with meticulously recreated sets of the 19th century, it is shame the cast don’t get to do more than just chat forlornly for 140 minutes.
For those who enjoy a cinematic experience, Jürgen Jürges photography is utterly ravishing, capturing some amazing looking shots which bring to life the more mundane moments. The HD transfer on this Bu-ray is pin sharp perfection, not only doing the photography justice but hides any suggestion that this film is 42 years old!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla, who may be a great actress and delivers a sterling performance but at 31 years old, doesn’t convince anyone she is 17! Everyone else offers superb support but at times the verbiage is so dense, it feels like they are reading descriptive passages from Fontane’s work and not the dialogue.
Having enjoyed the Fassbinder films I had seen prior to this, I was keen to enjoy Effi Briest, and while it is a masterclass in cinematography, framing, shot composition and visual symbolism, as a story to follow and be engaged in, this is a sadly tedious affair that even the superb cast and expressive imagery can’t compensate for.
Devoted film buffs should see this at least once but this is one for the hardcore arthouse crowd only.
Commentary by Ken Moulden
Interview with Ulli Lommel
Interview with Jürgen Jürges
Rating – ***
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