Watching this black-and-white period drama from iconoclastic German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I found myself getting pushed out of the story almost from the very first scenes. Since he usually shot his films in vibrant color, the choice to film Effi Briest in artsy monochromatic textures removed one of the tools Fassbinder customarily employed to create vivid realism. And while Fassbinder wasn’t averse to stylized compositions, many shots in Effi Briest put deliberate obstacles between the viewer and the subject, whether that means hiding actors behind gauzy curtains or peering at actors through mirrors and windows. Then there’s the peculiar rhythm of the picture’s storytelling. Quite frequently, Fassbinder halts scenes mid-conversation in order to fade to the next scene, interject a title card, or weave in narration. Seeing as how Effi Briest was adapted from a celebrated 19th-century German novel, Fassbinder may have felt obliged to include as much of the source material as possible. Furthermore, perhaps he wanted the style of Effi Briest to reflect a key tenet the original novel—the way social rules suppress emotion. Whatever his reasons, Fassbinder made a cold movie. It’s a respectable piece of work, no question, but it’s more of an intellectual exercise than a visceral experience.
Based on Theodore Fontane’s 1894 novel, the picture tracks the life of an affluent young woman named Effi Briest (Hanna Schygulla) as she moves from her family’s home to her husband’s home. In clinical vignettes at the beginning of the picture, we learn about Effi’s various contradictions; for instance, she has little use for material things but demands only the best once she finds something she actually wants. Though only 17, the beautiful Effi accepts a marriage proposal from Baron Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck). Life with the Baron renders Effi into something of an art object, because he values propriety more than intimacy. So when Effi meets the charming Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel), she begins a friendship that leads inevitably to an affair. For the Baron, the shakeup in his marriage is a social inconvenience with minimal lasting repercussions, but for Effi, cuckolding her husband proves immeasurably damaging. Informing the storyline is the theme of repression causing misery among the ruling class. Also present is a component of modern-day feminism. Alas, the inherent irony of Effi Briest—a repressed film about repression—ensures that some viewers will have difficulty finding a way into the piece. Even appraising the acting is tricky. Fassbinder clearly asked his performers to underplay every moment, so the attractive visuals created by cinematographers Jürgen Jürges and Dietrick Lohmann sometimes carry more feeling than the portrayals.
Effi Briest: FUNKY