EFFIE BRIEST is the opposite of a Visconti-like adaptation of a female focussed 19th century novel such as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina: no sweeping balls, all the action left out of the main-narrative (births, marriages, affairs), even a duel is shot at a distance to minimise tension and excitement. The focus is on repressive ideologies and what they do to people, mainly women. The message is basically the full title: ‘FONTANA EFFIE BRIEST: MANY PEOPLE WHO ARE AWARE OF THEIR OWN CAPABILITIES AND NEEDS, YET ACQUIESCE TO THE PREVAILING SYSTEM IN THEIR THOUGHTS AND DEEDS, THEREBY CONFIRM AND REINFORCE IT.’ The focus is to render cinematically what the novel signifies. For the first twenty minutes I kept thinking, wouldn’t Visconti have done it better? I wanted violins and violent emotions, swirling skirts under frescoes…then I gave myself over to the film’s form of narration and its rhythms, which ultimately became incantatory and hypnotic.
Effie Briest (Hannah Schygulla) is the only child of landed gentry from the provinces. A lively, spirited 17 year-old, intelligent and unspoiled, with a good heart. Baron von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck), much older at 38, old enough to have once courted her mother (played by Fassbinder’s own mother, under the name of Lilo Pompeit), arrives to ask for her hand in marriage and her parents encourage her to accept. Instetten is wealthy, ambitious, and has excellent prospects. ‘At twenty you’ll be where other girls are at 40 and reach much higher than I ever did,’ her mother tells her. Soon Effie is swept off to a provincial backwater where her husband is stationed. She’s looked after by servants but has no one to talk to. The society around her criticise her for being atheist or deist, for expressing too many thoughts or dressing too well, basically for being too young.
Her husband is often away on business and she’s bored, alone, and frightened of a Chinese ghost that her husband tells her is part of the history of the house, but that others will soon tell her is a way for a man to give status to an unremarkable house and for a husband who’s often away to keep a wife under control . When handsome Major Crampus (Ulli Lommell) comes to visit she’s thirsty for company and ripe…for what? It’s clear that they see each other furtively. What’s less clear is whether they actively consummate an affair. This goes on for a while. Then, as Instetten rises higher in government, they move to Berlin, Effie is appointed a Lady in Waiting to the Empress….and then her letters to Crampus are discovered.
The discovery of the letters, which happens almost two thirds into the narrative is a moral turning point. Instetten claims to love his wife, they have a daughter, Annie, the affair happened six years before. What should he do (see clip above)? He asks a friend for advice and as soon as he does so they realise that by the logic of their society, the act of making that information available to another, even a friend, leaves him with no option but to duel for his honour. Instetten wins the duel. Crampus asks to tell him something, maybe that he didn’t have sexual relations with his wife, but dies before he can do so.
The duel makes the papers. Effie is forbidden her home and loses her child. Even her parents, who still love her very much, can’t risk themselves being shunned and forbid her returning to her childhood home, though they do send her a small stipend so she can afford the boarding house she now has to live in. Her only companion is Roswitha, her maid, the daughter of a blacksmith who got pregnant out of wedlock and was beaten out of her house with a red-hot iron by her father. Roswitha’s situation was so terrible, Effie found it unseemly to speak about earlier, and it certainly lends a perspective to what Effie herself will live through later.
Effie doesn’t know if she feels guilty but she does accept the consequences of her actions. Until one day on a tram, she sees her daughter, flees in a panic, and finally begs to be able to see her daughter in a planned and reasoned way. This eventually takes place but that’s when she realises Instetten has turned her daughter against her and this she can’t bear. She takes ill, her loving parents take her back, and she dies, fully absolving Instetten. What a pity think the parents on her death, they were the perfect couple. Was it their fault? Did they spoil her? Some questions are too vast to answer, says Effie’s father, the last line of the film.
The story is divided into sections separated by intertitles that narrate (‘Then came their first separation, which lasted almost 12 hours’) comment on the story (‘an artifice calculated to inspire fear’) or the characters: ‘A man in his position has to be cold of course, on what do people founder in life if not on warm human emotions’. The film is shot in black and white (by Dietrich Lohman and Jürgen Jürges), in tableau-like compositions, with a very extensive voice-over narration, often taken directly from Fontana’s novel and read by Fassbinder himself, a superb device that allows an omnisicient narrator to comment on various aspects of the story – the society, the characters, ways of thinking, secret thoughts – occasionally in counterpoint to what we are shown and sometimes appearing mid-scene taking over from what we have seen and lending a perspective to it, and sometimes even what happens next. For those who’d like to see, all the intertitles and voice-overs are compiled above in chronological order.
The images are often shot through mirrors — this is a society in which perception is all, or gauzes — in scenes that fade to white, like old photographs. Women of all classes are often on their knees before their men. The ending is so moving because it reinforces what the opening title tells us, Effie’s resignation at the end confirms and reinforces the very ideology that brought her down so painfully and unnecessarily.
The film is hypnotic and ultimately moving, all black and white, and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Tableau-ish, episodic, incantatory. A masterpiece.